social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own)

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the glorious chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement that began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the segregated bus. This story is usually misrepresented in ways that hide Parks’ planning, leadership, skill, and feminist radicalism (see the real Rosa Parks). In any case, at least 99 percent of the city’s African Americans quickly started boycotting the bus company. That meant that 17,500 workers needed a different way to get to work.

At first, Black-owned taxi companies carried them for the price of a bus ticket, but then the city threatened to enforce a minimum-fare law. Next, more than 150 people volunteered to drive boycotters to work in their own cars. These volunteers “responded immediately,” Martin Luther King recalls in Stride Toward Freedom, but “they started out simply cruising the streets of Montgomery with no particular system.” That must have meant that many workers missed getting available rides. Ministers responded by calling for new volunteers from their pulpits, and even more drivers came out, but that meant (King writes) that “the real job was just beginning–that of working out some system for these three hundred-odd automobiles, to replace their haphazard movement around the city.”

Committees were formed and roles were assigned. It was easy to identify [morning] pickup locations, because African Americans lived in dense urban neighborhoods. But “we discovered that we were at a loss in selecting [afternoon] pick-up stations,” because domestic workers were employed all over the White neighborhoods. Two Black postal workers helped design regular routes. King recalls all this organizational work with evident pride, and concludes, “Altogether the operation of the motor pool represented organization and coordination at their best. Reporters and visitors from all over the country looked upon the system as a unique accomplishment.”

I’d like to draw two theoretical implications from this story.

First, we tend to think of social movements as examples of contentious politics, along with protests, strikes, and even revolutions. Contentious politics has a substantial literature. A separate literature concerns how communities organize themselves to provide services and manage common resources over the long term. For the most part, these two discussions are rather separate. They draw on different disciplines and have different dominant rhetorical styles. But actual social movements rely heavily on what could be called “common pool resource management.”

The two postal workers who designed routes exemplify lessons from the research of Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues: local people tend to have the most detailed relevant information; clear rules enable coordination; and public goods can be rotated geographically to serve many people. I’ve been arguing that we should combine the political-economy of Elinor Ostrom with the insights of Gandhi and King for a more complete civic theory.

The practical implication is that people who want to confront power often benefit from learning how to organize systems and processes that look like nonprofit enterprises.

Second, it’s commonplace to note the dependence of the civil rights movement on “social capital,” especially in the form of churches and unions. Both institutions play explicit roles in Dr. King’s narrative of Montgomery. But this analysis can leave you at a loss if you’re part of a community that doesn’t happen to have much social capital. And social capital can be mysterious, for it is invisible, and its connections to tangible outcomes seem obscure.

Indeed, social capital is a metaphor: Montgomery’s African Americans did not have a literal deposit of social capital in the bank. When social capital is measured by asking individuals about their tendency to join groups and to trust one another, it’s hard to see how we could boost these assets or why they would be important politically.

A different way of looking at social capital is as a concrete capacity to solve collective-action problems, such as providing free rides to 17,500 people every day. That may have been easier in Montgomery because so many people were already organized in other successful, functioning groups, such as the Black churches. “Labor, civic, and social groups were our staunch supporters,” King writes, “and in many communities new organizations were founded just to support the protest.” Like other forms of capital, social capital can be built up in one place and used in another. But what mattered was actually organizing the carpools to sustain the boycott. Skillful citizens can pull off such successes even in the absence of existing high levels of social capital, when they design good structures.

In short, social capital is a metaphor for self-organization, and people can self-organize.

See also what is a social movement?Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need; and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II).

mini-conference on Facts, Values, and Strategies

We are about to begin discussions of the papers listed below, in draft form. They are destined for The Good Society journal. The conversations are at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts

For me, the underlying rationale goes like this. A good person is always asking “What should I do?” That question must become plural–“What should we do?”–for two reasons: we cannot accomplish enough alone, and we must reason together to improve our opinions. Both questions integrate facts and values. Something that works but isn’t good is not what we should do. Likewise, we want to avoid something that is good but doesn’t fit the circumstances of the time and place.

The structure of intellectual life in modernity frustrates asking these questions, for several reasons. One major reason is that matters of value are assigned to certain disciplines in the humanities, while matters of fact go to disciplines that widely imitate science and present themselves as value-free.

It’s easy to call for a reintegration of facts and values (and strategy), but very hard to pull that off. Fortunately, we have traditions of thought–always contributed by many thinkers and practitioners rather than a single luminary–that do reintegrate facts, values, and strategies. Names that stand for these traditions include Gandhi, Pope Francis, Hannah Arendt, William James, Amartya Sen, Elinor Ostrom, and Jurgen Habermas. These names recur in interesting combinations in the following papers. So do certain themes: the limitations of human cognitive abilities and the positive potential of certain kinds of affect; the value of institutions for structuring deliberation; the link between work and reflection; and the value of deep, responsive uncertainty–wonder.

“Public Entrepreneurship, Civic Competence, and Voluntary Association: Self-Governance Through the Ostroms’ Political Economy Lenses” — Paul Dragos Aligica, George Mason University

“Giving Birth in the Public Square: Dialogue as a Maieutic Practice” — Lauren Swayne Barthold, Endicott College and Essential Partners

“William James’s Psychology of Philosophizing: Selective Attention, Intellectual Diversity, and the Sentiments in Our Rationalities” — Paul Croce, Stetson University

“Democracy as Group Discussion and Collective Action:Facts, Values, and Strategies in Rural Landscapes” — Timothy J. Shaffer, Kansas State University

“Social Media, Dismantling Racism and Mystical Knowing: What White Catholics are Learning from #BlackLivesMatter” — Mary E. Hess, University of Toronto

“Institutions, Capabilities, Citizens” — James Johnson, University of Rochester, and Susan Orr, SUNY College at Brockport

“Forgiveness After Charleston: The Ethics of an Unlikely Act” — Larry M. Jorgensen, Skidmore College

“Facts, Values, and Democracy Worth Wanting: Public Deliberation in the Era of Trump” — David Eric Meens, University of Colorado Boulder

“The Praxis of Amartya Sen and the Promotion of Democratic Capability” — Anthony DeCesare, St. Louis University

“A Civic Account of Justice” — Karol Edward Soltan, University of Maryland

was the Civil Rights Movement successful because of the Cold War?

It’s widely argued that the federal government made concessions on civil rights between 1945 and 1970 because blatant racial oppression was embarrassing during the global struggle against communism. Doug McAdam illustrates this argument by noting the “stark contrast” between FDR and Truman on issues of racial justice. FDR was an extraordinarily powerful president who tended toward liberal personal attitudes on race and drew overwhelming support from Black voters in the North, yet he did virtually nothing for civil rights–not even endorsing anti-lynching bills that were pending in Congress. Truman held more ambiguous views and faced political peril, yet he took substantial steps to desegregate the military and civil service. McAdam, following other authors, attributes the difference to the onset of the Cold War.

This explanation has two slightly dispiriting implications (not for McAdam, but for other observers). One is that White American leaders didn’t respond to moral arguments, principles, or empathy; they simply wanted to win a geopolitical struggle. The other is that the Civil Rights Movement succeeded thanks to a fortunate circumstance, not due to its own courage and excellence.

What those inferences overlook is the skillful and principled ways that the Movement took advantage of openings to shift Whites’ hearts and minds.

First, Movement leaders intentionally provoked responses that would look ugly on national TV. After the setback experienced in Albany, GA, where local authorities behaved civilly but refused to budge, the Movement rushed to Birmingham, AL to confront Bull Connor during his lame-duck period because they knew he could be counted on to respond with brutality. The Cold War made the US vulnerable, and the movement took full advantage.

Second, the protesters wrapped themselves in the flag, the constitution, and other symbols of American patriotism. I am sure this was sincere–I read thinkers like King and Rustin as genuine patriots. But it was also smart.

As McAdam concludes: “the extraordinary string of civil rights victories achieved in the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond) has to be accounted as owing at least as much to the creativity and courage of movement forces as to favourable environmental circumstances.” Stephen Jones argues that successful social movements almost always need both “luck and pluck.”

The skill and success of the Civil Rights Movement then echoed in unexpected ways. In Communist states such as Czechoslovakia and Poland, television footage of brutal American racism was widely aired to discredit the US. These regimes also broadcast antinuclear protests from Western Europe. At least some viewers identified themselves with the protesters–and the communist state with the oppressors. They learned that nonviolent social movements could succeed against powerful governments like their own.

Aldon D. Morris writes, “in the early days of the Solidarity movement in Poland, Bayard Rustin, a major tactician of the civil rights movement, was summoned to Poland to give a series of colloquia and speeches on how nonviolent direct action worked in the civil rights movement.” Later, the Tiananmen protesters in China learned “that King’s methods of non-violence and civil disobedience had helped the blacks win civil rights in the United States. They were also impressed by King’s interactions with American presidents in that effort, which offered them a model to follow when they requested a meeting with China’s leaders.”

A movement for universal human rights embarrassed a government ostensibly committed to those values. Foreign dictatorships then tried to exploit this embarrassment, only to inspire similar movements against themselves. This is a story of some luck and lots of pluck.

Sources: Doug McAdam, “The US Civil Rights Movement: Power from Below and Above, 1945-70,” Merle Goldman, “The 1989 Demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and Beyond: Echoes of Gandhi,” and Stephen Jones, “Georgia’s ‘Rose Revolution’ of 2003: A Forceful Peace,” all in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Aldon Morris, “A Retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual Landmarks,” Annual Review of Sociology vol. 25, no 1 (Nov. 2003), pp. 517-539.

Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II)

(Santa Monica, CA) On Monday, I posted an argument that three traditions of theory and practice provide what we need for a civic theory, which is a theory of what we should do. It is different from a political theory that asks what should be done or how things should be.

I can elaborate by suggesting what it would mean to put the three traditions together, using each to compensate for the limitations of the others.

We might begin with a classic situation for the Bloomington School: a group of people is trying to manage a common-pool resource, which may be as traditional and tangible as a fishery or as current and abstract as protocols for the Internet. They should consider the whole list of design principles enumerated by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, including clear boundaries, graduated sanctions, shared monitoring, rules congruent with the context, and efficient mechanisms for conflict-resolution.

However, inspired by Habermas, we will elevate one design principle above the rest–participation–and will define it to be basically synonymous with public deliberation. People should deliberate about which of the other principles to employ, and how. This is because deliberation is our best mechanism for deciding what is right and wrong. Further, talking and listening with other people about public matters is an important aspect of the good life for human beings; it enriches our inner lives. While deliberating, people should strive for an ideal speech situation, one that is devoid of coercion and constraint, so that the only power is the power of the best argument.

Now the theory is beginning to sound fully Habermasian, but the Bloomington School puts deliberation in an essential context. After all, it is easier not to attend a discussion in the first place and let others do the work of governance. Thus the very existence of a discussion implies at least a partial prior solution to a free-rider problem. What’s more, the fact that the group has something to manage implies that they have already done some work together. To be sure, they may have taken the resource that they govern from others or exploited others’ labor. The founders of the United States, for example, governed a commonwealth that had been seized from indigenous nations and enriched by enslaved people’s labor. This was fundamentally unjust and evil. Nevertheless, it had taken common action to achieve this dominance; the colonists had to form local governments, create and enroll in militias, and sustain the Continental Army that wrested control from the British Crown. The general point is that a group that is in a position to govern a resource has usually managed to coordinate its members’ work already. Discussion rarely precedes governance; it is more typically a moment in an ongoing process of governance.

Moreover, the norms that allow groups to approach an ideal speech situation–norms like civility, reasonable trust, and openness–are fragile common resources that groups must build and sustain. Almost all real discussions are imperfect, by these criteria: some people are missing because they chose to free-ride, some participants undermine civility and trust in the way they talk, and time usually runs out before consensus can be reached, necessitating a vote. Thus the degree to which groups meet the Habermasian ideal of reasonable discourse depends on how well they have addressed core collective-action problems.

And not everything can be thrown open to discussion. The Bloomington School advises that boundaries must be clear and rules must be congruent with local circumstances and traditions in order for people to coordinate. In theory, boundaries and traditions could be freely discussed. Citizens could deliberate about who should be included in the group and what norms they should hold dear. But since a discussion already requires a reasonably functional group, and forming a group requires boundaries and congruence with local traditions, it is not literally possible to start from a neutral place. Instead, a group with some kind of boundary and set of traditions can consider modifying them in the interests of justice or practicality. They can rebuild their ship at sea, but they cannot start from scratch. The group comes first; then the discussion.

Although moments of explicit deliberation have special normative value, they need not be frequent. Ostrom analyzes a water management regime near Valencia, Spain, that was last deliberated almost six centuries ago and still functions today. Discourse should not be allowed to overshadow other kinds of contribution to the commons; people also contribute with their emotions, their labor, and their bodies.

In this combination of Habermas plus Ostrom, we have the nucleus of a satisfactory theory, but it doesn’t tell us what to do when some other group feels itself fundamentally different and sees no obligation to join a deliberation or share resources fairly. That is when we need the distinctive contributions of nonviolent social movements.They can force changes in the underlying rules and norms that govern a situation. They can force people to deliberate and to cooperate.

However, nonviolent social movements need insights from the schools of Habermas and of Ostrom, for three important reasons.

First, not every nonviolent social movement has desirable or worthy ends. The only way for human beings to test and reconsider whether their own values are worthy is to deliberate with people who do not agree with them (see Habermas).

Second a successful social movement requires people to coordinate their sacrifices, and that happens only when they already belong to, or can create, functional self-governing entities (see Ostrom).

Finally, a social movement cannot move forever. It must pursue a relatively stable or even permanent outcome as its objective. Participants in the Civil Rights Movement did not imagine that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would remove racism from the United States, but they pursued that legislation as a meaningful target during the early 1960s. An objective such as the Civil Rights Act should incorporate good institutional design (see Ostrom) and should allow or even require ongoing deliberation (see Habermas).

This does not mean that citizens are only fully active and responsible when they’re participating in a nonviolent social movement that urges a reform like the Voting Rights Act. But that example does bring out the main dimensions of citizenship, which can be combined in many other ways.

Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need

(Rancho Palos Verdes, CA) Back in 2014, I argued: [Elinor] “Ostrom plus [Jürgen] Habermas is nearly all we need.” I define a good citizen as anyone who seriously asks the question “What should we do?” Citizens face a dizzying variety of hard issues, but underlying them are general categories of problems. As of 2014, I thought these were the two basic categories:

  1. Problems of discourse make our thoughts and conversations go badly, so that we believe or desire the wrong things. Example include our susceptibility to propaganda and our strong tendency to “motivated reasoning,” or picking facts and theories because they yield the results we want.
  2. Problems of collective action cause us to get results that we do not desire, even when we agree about goals and values. An example is the temptation to “free ride” on other people’s contributions, or the tendency of small groups of specialists to dominate even democratic organizations (“The Iron Law of Oligarchy”).

Habermas and the postwar Frankfurt School provide a robust theoretical tradition, linked to practical experimentation, about how to address problems of discourse. Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School provide an equally robust theory/practice tradition about how to address problems of collective action. That was my basis for saying that Ostrom and Habermas nearly sufficed for a civic theory.

But I now think there is a third general category:

  1. Problems of identity and exclusion arise when some people simply won’t deliberate or collaborate with other people because they regard the latter as fundamentally different and inferior. Relatedly, sometimes people feel that they themselves don’t deserve to deliberate or collaborate because they are inferior.

The theoretical resources of Habermas and Ostrom are not sufficient for that third category, and we can learn more from theorists and practitioners of nonviolent social movements. That is the tradition that tells us what to do about problems of identity and exclusion if we choose to take violence off the table.

Therefore, I now believe that Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need–assuming that each name is synecdoche for a whole tradition of theory and practice.

Ostrom Habermas Gandhi
Fundamental problem People fail to achieve what would be good for them collectively People manipulate other people by influencing their opinions and goals. People fail to view others (or themselves) as fully human
Exemplary case of the problem We destroy an environmental asset by failing to work together Government or corporate propaganda distorts our authentic values One national or ethnic group exploits another
Characteristic starting point People know what they want but can’t get it People don’t know what they want or want the wrong things Some people won’t recognize other people
Essential behavior of a citizen Working together to make or preserve something. Talking and listening about controversial values. Using nonviolent sacrifice to compel change
Instead of homo economicus (the individual who maximizes material self-interest) we need … Homo faber (the person as a maker) Homo sapiens (the person as a reasoner) or homo politicus (the participant in public assemblies). A Satyagrahi (the person as a bearer of soul force)
Role of the state It is a set of nested and overlapping associations, not fundamentally different from other associations (firms, nonprofits, etc.) Citizens form public opinion, which should guide the state, which makes law. The state should be radically distinct from other sectors A target of demands
Modernity is … A threat to local and traditional ways of cooperating, but we can use science to assist people in solving their own problems A process of enlightenment that liberates people, but it goes wrong when states and markets “colonize” the private domain (for Gandhi) an imperialist imposition, undermining swaraj
Main interdisciplinary combination Game theory plus observations of indigenous problem-solving Normative philosophy (mainly achieved through critical readings of past philosophers) plus system-level sociology. Critical theology plus military strategy

the New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today

(Oxford, OH) By the 1980s, a large literature distinguished the “New Social Movements” from older strands of politics. Jürgen Habermas chose to list the following New Social Movements then active in Germany: “the anti-nuclear and environmental movements,” “the peace movement”; “the citizens’ action movement”; the “alternative” movement that included urban squatters and new rural communities; movements of “minorities (the elderly, homosexuals, disabled people, etc)”; support groups and youth sects; “religious fundamentalism”; the “tax protest movement”; “school protests” by parent associations; “resistance to modernist reforms”; and “the women’s movement” (1981, p. 34).

Some of these might be classified with the left, and others (notably, tax protests and religious fundamentalism), with the right. In retrospect, it is debatable whether they formed a meaningful category or could be distinguished sharply from the “Old” social movements, such as labor unionism and civil rights in the USA.

My view is that these movements did represent a new stage of politics in the wealthy democracies. That stage has passed, however, as new problems have come to the fore and as the social movements of ca. 1968-1985 have become institutionalized in the nonprofit sector, thus losing their emancipatory role. These changes mean that it’s important to compare our time with the 1970s and early 1980s and to envision productive combinations of the Old and New Social Movement forms.

One way to summarize the story is that zero-sum struggles over scarce goods and basic rights (civil, political, and economic) were essential to politics up until the 1960s. However, changes in the political economy of the richest nations and the most advanced US states had moved those struggles into the background by ca. 1970. Strong economic growth made possible the elimination of absolute poverty in countries like the Federal Republic of Germany. Thanks to labor’s unusually high share of income, the power of unions and parties, and the disruptions of World War II, working people exercised considerable political power through the state. That meant that even as pre-tax incomes became unusually equal, incomes after taxes and welfare payments grew even more equal. Also, thanks to constitutional reforms, most citizens could count on fairly equal legal rights.

“Income Inequality in Germany Measured by the GINI-Coefficient” (Top line is before redistribution; bottom line is after. Zero would be complete equality.)

At the time, many American liberals and European social democrats felt that the success of the democratic welfare state should simply be consolidated. The emerging neoliberal movement of Thatcher and Reagan argued that the welfare state was inefficient and illiberal and needed to be rolled back; their ideas gained momentum with the stagflation of the 1970s. But thinkers like Habermas, Offe, Mansbridge, Beck and (in a different vein) Foucault adopted more positive views of the New Social Movements.

Writing in 1985, Offe observed that European capital and labor had reached a postwar agreement.Unionized, private-sector employment would deliver prosperity, and workers would be free to develop identities, interests, and memberships during their youth and student years, their growing leisure time, and their lengthy retirements. The issues for politics were growth, economic distribution and security. These were contested within narrow constraints (for instance, everyone was a Keynesian) and not expected to occupy much public attention.

The New Social Movements then arose when people critically assessed the patterns that prevailed in the domains that were supposed to be left private, such as childhood, marriage, church, and nature. Activists demanded large-scale change in these domains, but not via direct state action, because they opposed “manipulation, control, dependence, bureaucratization, regulation, etc.” (Offe, 1985, p. 829).

Offe argued that “middle-class radicals” played a disproportionate role in these New Movements. Traditionally, workers and the poor had struggled against bourgeois notions of propriety and normality. However, the organized post-War working class had traded cultural conventionality for prosperity, leaving affluent students, public sector workers, and professionals to demand room for “alternative” ways of life (pp. 823-5).

Habermas drew a distinction between System and Lifeworld. A System is governed by instrumental rationality: it treats individuals as means to a given end. Both state bureaucracies and capitalist markets are Systems. As a democratic socialist, Habermas favored a relatively large state bureaucracy controlled by a popularly elected legislature. But both governmental and market Systems were problematic when they extended into the Lifeworld composed of authentic human relationships. Thus, even as a welfare state like the Federal Republic of Germany neared success at the “old” goals of eliminating poverty and narrowing gaps of wealth and power, it risked colonizing the Lifeworld by turning everyone into a consumer and an employee, employer, or welfare client and then regulating their behavior accordingly. Habermas wrote in 1981:

Precisely these roles are the target of protest. Alternative praxis is opposed to the profit-oriented instrumentalization of professional labor, the market-dependent mobilization of labor, the extension of competitiveness and performance pressure into elementary school. It is also directed against the process whereby services, relations and time become monetary values, against the consumerist redefinition of private life spheres and personal life styles. Furthermore, the clients’ relation to public service agencies is intended to be broken and restructured according to the participatory model of self-help organizations (p. 36).

He proposed, “at least cursorily,” that all the New Social Movements represented “resistance to tendencies to colonize the lifeworld (p. 35). That was true, he thought, of the conservative movements as well as the radical ones. To apply his thinking to the US context, we might say: Whether you moved to Vermont to go back to nature or to New Hampshire to live free or die, you were opting out of systems seen as instrumental. Habermas concluded that even if the New Social Movements were “unrealistic,” they offered symbols of resistance to the “colonization of the life-world” (p. 37). 

For both Habermas and Offe, the New Social Movements were different from the Old because they no longer addressed issues that could be resolved with money or rights. Instead, these movements asked “how to defend or reinstate endangered life styles, or how to put reformed life styles into practice” (Habermas, p. 33).

One could debate whether feminism and gay liberation were really “life style” movements as opposed to struggles for basic equality (thus continuous with the “Old” social movements), but they certainly highlighted informal, interpersonal, and attitudinal issues more than older movements had. Habermas observed that “High value is placed on the particular, the provincial, small social spaces, decentralized forms of interaction and de-specialized activities, simple interaction and non-differentiated public spheres. This is all intended to promote the revitalization of buried possibilities for expression and communication. Resistance to reformist intervention also belongs here” (p. 36).

Similarly, Jenny Mansbridge observed that during the ferment of the late 1960s and 1970s, small groups “appeared everywhere like fragile bubbles.” These groups shared certain features. Decisions were made in face-to-face meetings, after much discussion, when someone expressed the consensus of the group. There were no formal distinctions among participants or offices. And there was a strong norm against making self-interested statements. Face-to-face, consensual democracy was meant as an alternative to what Mansbridge called “adversary democracy,” which presumes that interests conflict and that decisions must always have winners and losers (Mansbridge, 1983).

Foucault, meanwhile, regarded the welfare state as a particularly efficient and all-encompassing instrument of “discipline.” Not only was he supportive of the New Social Movements, but this great radical “was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state” (Zamora, 2014).

Ulrich Beck, evidently drawing on Habermas, offered the perspective that the core social problem had shifted from the distribution of wealth and power to the distribution of risk. Human beings had always faced risks, but new dangers (e.g., nuclear power plants melting down, chemicals in one’s food) were harder to diagnose and prevent, less a matter of individuals’ negligence than outputs of Habermasian Systems, and not necessarily correlated with wealth. “Risk positions are not class positions,” he wrote, because people with money may sometimes face more risk, and risk can spread contagiously (Beck 1986; English translation 1992, pp. 39, 44). This is one reason that Offe’s middle-class radicals were so prominent in the New Social Movements, all of which were “environmentalist” in the broadest sense of that term.

It is important to note that in the other half of Europe, movements were also struggling against a System–in their case, the single-headed System of state communism. Like the Western New Social Movements, they built up alternative spaces meant to be authentic (“Living in Truth”) and voluntary. “The mainstream of the [Polish] opposition was deliberately and profoundly anti-political,” writes Aleksander Smolar. “Faced with the strategic choice described by Adam Michnik in his letter from prison, the answer of the opposition was clear. The objective was not to defeat the ruling power but to progressively liberate society from its control” (Smolar, 2009) by building a better alternative in civil society.

Four decades later, the basic achievements of the welfare state seem fragile, its objective of ending absolute poverty receding. That breathes some new life into the “Old” social movements’ objective or demanding redistribution from the state. In that light, Occupy Wall Street represents an interesting development. Its modes of interaction come straight from the New Social Movements. So does its refusal to make highly concrete demands on institutions. Offe wrote, “Movements are incapable of negotiating because they do not have anything to offer in return for any concessions made to their demands. … Movements are also unwilling to negotiate because they often consider their central concern of such high and universal priority that no part of it can be meaningfully sacrificed” (Offe, pp. 830-1). I think there was some of that spirit in Occupy. On the other hand, Occupy’s evocation of “The 99%” made it universalistic in a way reminiscent of the Old Left instead of the New Social Movements, and it returned to questions of economic redistribution. It pursued an Old Left agenda in New Social Movement form–not successfully as such, but perhaps subject to improvement.

Meanwhile, the norms that distinguished the “New” social movements have found lasting and quasi-secure places within institutions, particularly in nonprofits and universities. Many people who work full-time for service-learning centers, community development corporations, youth programs, and other NGOs combat explicit and implicit biases, prize authentic local communities and traditions, emphasize dialog and deliberation, work in (or emulate) voluntary associations, try to create zones of consensus and relational ethics, and stay clear of both state bureaucracies and corporations. Many a young graduate of these programs wants to start an urban agriculture nonprofit or develop curricular materials, but would never think of working for the government or running for office.

I’ve previously described these programs as the home of the most authentically conservative politics in the US today, if “conservative” means localism, sustainability, deference to indigenous traditions, humility and skepticism about expertise, and a resistance to state power.

One view is that the New Social Movements were conservative (in this sense) from the start, and that was always bad news. The left, wrote Todd Gitlin in 1993, is the tradition of explicitly universalistic values, whether those are liberal, Marxist, or Christian-inflected (e.g., in the Civil Rights Movement). “Universal human emancipation,” he argued, is the core of all authentically revolutionary and reformist politics. Its enemy is the kind of conservatism embodied in the New Social Movements and in many of today’s NGOs. Yes, progressive movements must address injustices related to sexuality, gender and color–not merely economics–but always in the explicit pursuit of a common good.

A related critique is that the New Social Movements have depicted “the oppressed [as] innocent selves defined by the wrongs done to them” and have demanded protection. Once former participants in New Social Movements take up roles inside institutions, they start to manage and administer fairness, understood as a set of rules and regulations that protect the disadvantaged (see Bickford 1997 for a useful summary of a position that she doesn’t hold). In contrast, real social movements emancipate.

In 1985, Offe judged that the New Social Movements held a “presently marginal, though highly visible power position.” The question was whether they would “transcend” that situation, which would require forming alliances. They could align with the traditional institutional left (socialist parties and unions), or with traditionalist conservative movements. Or the traditional conservatives and the institutional left might unite to marginalize the New Social Movements. Offe thought all three scenarios were possible

Right now, the nascent movement of resistance to Trump–and kindred developments in countries like Hungary–again look “marginal, though highly visible.” These movements are defending fundamental and universal rights in a way that was typical of the Old Social Movements. They draw on the New Social Movements for some of their modes of political engagement, but they are beginning to connect to political parties and campaigns. So far their rhetoric is mostly defensive, which was typical of the New Social Movements as a whole. Offe observed that the “positive aspects” of these movements were “mostly articulated in negative logical and grammatical forms, as indicated by key words such as ‘never,’ ‘ nowhere,’ ‘end,’ ‘stop,’ frieze,’ ‘ban.’ etc.” (Offe, p. 830).

We will see whether today’s incipient movements begin to develop more expansive positive agendas and shift from merely opposing Trump (and his like) to envisioning and demanding a substantially different political economy and a new social contract. That would also require alliances, I think, with what remains of the institutionalized left, including the Democratic Party.

See also: what is a social movement?;  what activist movements will look like in the Trump eraquestions for the social movement post FergusonHabermas and critical theory (a primer); and perspectives on identity politics.


  • Beck, Ulrich. Risk society: Towards a New Modernity. Vol. 17. Sage, 1992.
  • Bickford, Susan, “Anti-Anti-Identity Politics: Feminism, Democracy, and the Complexities of Citizenship,” Hypatia, vol. 12, no. 4 (1997).
  • Gitlin, Todd, “The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity,” Harper’s Magazine, 1993
  • Habermas, Jürgen, “New Social Movements,” Telos, September 21, vol. 1981, no. 49 (1981) pp. 33-37
  • Mansbridge, Jane J. Beyond Adversary Democracy. University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  • Offe, Claus, “New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics,” Social Research, vol. 52, no. 1 (Winter 1985), pp. 817-68.
  • Smolar, Aleksander. “Toward ‘Self-Limiting Revolution’: Poland, 1970-1989.” in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garten Ash, eds., Civil Resistance and Power: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Zamora, Daniel, “Can we Criticize Foucault?The Jacobin, December 2014.

what is a social movement?

Social movements are at the heart of politics right now. Drawing loosely on work by Charles Tilly, Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, Frencesca Polletta, Jennifer Earl, and others, I would define a social movement using five criteria (listed below). Note that this is a value-neutral definition. It could fit a fascist movement as well as a progressive one, and it doesn’t imply that social movements are preferable to other phenomena, such as political parties. It is merely intended to categorize a set of phenomena so that we can study them.

1. A social movement consists of many autonomous groups and individuals

Movements are polycentric rather than hierarchical or centralized. A single organization can adopt the feel and spirit of a movement by empowering separate groups internally, but it is only an actual movement if those groups are autonomous and collaborate voluntarily.

2. It persists over numerous episodes and campaigns

The marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge were episodes. The struggle for the Voting Rights Act was a campaign. The Civil Rights Movement consisted of thousands of episodes and several campaigns.

3. It makes demands on holders of power

The power-holders may be governments, firms, media entities, universities, or any other institutions. If people make no demands on any institutions, I wouldn’t define them as participants in a social movement. They might form an important grouping, such as a spiritual revival or a self-help network, but it would not be a social movement.

Just as important, a social movement makes demands on holders of power rather than trying to supplant them. A political party seeks offices. A revolutionary cadre strives to overthrow and replace the state. An established labor union negotiates contracts with a firm. None of these meet the definition of a social movement, which stands apart from the institution and makes demands on it. I acknowledge that a broad-based social movement can encompass elements that act like parties, revolutionary cadres, or collective bargainers. The Civil Rights Movement encompassed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the Black Panther Party, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; but it was a movement because it wasn’t defined by any of those groups.

4. It supports its demands by displaying WUNC

Tilly observes that social movements don’t just express demands; they back them up with four assets that command attention: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. For example, the women’s marches after Trump’s Inauguration demonstrated that millions of people cared (numbers), that they were willing to travel to Washington or stand outside in the streets of their hometowns (commitment), that they were unified (pink pussycat hats, marching on the same day), and that they were worthy. Worthiness can mean respectability: for instance, “We are middle-class women (with some men) who are pillars of our communities, not the kinds of people who usually make trouble.” But worthiness need not mean respectability. Sometimes, highly oppressed groups claim the worthiness that comes from suffering.

WUNC serves as a standard for evaluating the credibility of would-be movements. For example, does holding a sign on the Boston Common demonstrate enough commitment?

5. It imposes limits on itself

Social movements often adopt and attempt to enforce limits on themselves: “We will not run for office or endorse any parties.” “We will negotiate with companies but not form our own businesses.” “We denounce terrorism.” “We call for a new nation but will not commit treason against the existing state.”

No particular form of self-limitation is definitive of social movements. For instance, there are violent and even terroristic social movements; thus nonviolence is not a condition. But it is highly characteristic–perhaps even definitive–of social movements that they choose some limitations that they enforce on their own members. I would propose a functional explanation of this tendency. Coordinating the behavior of many autonomous groups and individuals is extraordinarily difficult. Movements are easily destroyed by internal disagreements or by escalation to a point where they lose their support. Successful movements avoid escalation by choosing limits and economize on the topics that are open to discussion. For instance, if the movement eschews electoral politics, then it needn’t decide who should run for which office. If it renounces violence, it needn’t debate which targets to hit with which weapons.

Thus a social movement can say: “We are [a set of groups] who want [demands] from [institutions], who demonstrate WUNC [in particular ways] and who eschew [certain tactics or ends.]”

Civic Deserts and our present crisis

My colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan have published an article in The Conversation that I believe supports an important diagnosis of the 2016 election and our current crisis. Their article is entitled “Study: 60 percent of rural millennials lack access to a political life.” They find that a majority of rural youth live in areas that they call “Civic Deserts,” which are “characterized by a dearth of opportunities for civic and political learning and engagement” and a lack of “youth programming, culture and arts organizations and religious congregations.”

Young people in these areas are less civically and politically engaged than other youth. They do not belong to groups and they rarely take civic actions, like voting and volunteering. “During the 2016 presidential election, young people who live in Civic Deserts were less likely to vote compared to others with more civic resources.”

But if they did vote, “they were slightly more likely to choose Trump than those with better access to civic resources.” To illustrate that point: young urban Whites who lived in areas with many civic organizations voted for Trump at a rate of 17 percent. Young Whites who lived in Civic Deserts—which could be rural, suburban or urban—voted for Trump at more than twice that rate: 39 percent.

A person could prefer Trump over Clinton in the November election for a variety of plausible reasons. For instance, if you think that abortion is murder, that is a reason to pull the lever for Trump/Pence instead of Clinton/Kaine. But to like Trump—to appreciate his rhetoric and leadership—is a different matter.

I have argued that few people who belong to functional voluntary groups will appreciate Trump. In almost any kind of voluntary association (whether an evangelical church, a Farmworkers’ local, a business coalition, or a lending circle) leaders typically emerge who demonstrate two virtues: inclusiveness and accountability.

No matter how unified the group, it will encompass some diversity. Members normally expect their leaders to hold the group together by using words and taking actions that include, rather than exclude. Groups do sometimes expel or deliberately alienate members–but only in extremis. The normal goal is to hold the group together.

And members expect their leaders to deliver. If the pastor says the church is going to build a new playground slide, then a new slide had better appear reasonably soon, or the pastor will be blamed. If the informal leader of a social circle promises to organize a gathering but fails to set a date, her stock as a leader will fall.

Donald Trump exhibits neither virtue. He is happy to exclude and he is utterly unaccountable. Indeed, I believe many of his fans don’t really expect him to deliver. For them, he is like a droll uncle sitting beside them on the couch, watching O’Reilly, and making remarks that reflect their feelings. When he says he’s going to drain the swamp, they take that to mean that he endorses their values and despises the lobbyists and politicians whom they despise, not that he will actually pass ethics reforms. I posit that this attitude reflects a lack of satisfying experiences with voluntary associations in which the leaders are inclusive and accountable. And that is an increasingly common situation given the steep decline in organizations like unions and churches.

Thus I consider the decline in membership—especially among working class Whites—a fundamental cause of Trump.

As evidence, I cite my colleagues’ new finding that White Millennials who live in Civic Deserts voted for Trump. I’d also cite a recent conversation with a self-described Southern conservative evangelical pastor, who told me that he despises Trump because the president’s leadership style violates everything he believes about how to hold a community together.

I’d also cite Hannah Arendt’s argument that loneliness is a precondition of totalitarianism. For her “isolation” means being alone, but “loneliness” means having no felt capacity to control the world in conjunction with other human beings:

Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together, ‘acting in concert’ (Burke); isolated men are powerless by definition. …

In isolation, man remains in contact with the world as the human artifice; only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable…

Isolation then becomes loneliness. … Totalitarian domination … bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man (The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 474-5).

Donald Trump is no totalitarian, but the mechanism is similar. When individuals learn from hard experience that they stand alone in a harsh world, they are prone to follow leaders who simply echo their private thoughts and make them feel part of a unified mass.

See also the hollowing out of US democracyto beat Trump, invest in organizing and the “civic state of the union”

new project on the socio-emotional impact of civic engagement

(New York City) People can gain satisfaction, empathy, purpose, insight, and a host of other socio-emotional or psycho-social benefits from taking part in civic life. Also, if they demonstrate psychological maturity or even excellence, it can help them to be responsible civic actors. On the other hand, they can pay a psychosocial price from acting politically. I am haunted by Doug McAdam’s findings, in his great book Freedom Summer, about the longterm human costs of participating in the voter registration drives in Mississippi. Whether psychosocial development and civic engagement benefit each other depends on how we design those experiences, and in doing so, we must be attentive to the varying experiences of people who stand in different places with respect to the social issues (such as racism) that are at stake.

Therefore, I am pleased to share this news:

Tisch College is launching a new initiative in Social-Emotional Learning and Civic Engagement thanks to a generous gift from David T. Zussman, A53, J80P, and his family through the Zussman Fund for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). The gift will support Tufts faculty’s integration of social-emotional learning into their teaching, and will promote related research and education across the University through frequent collaboration with the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT). A key aim is to encourage all Tufts students—undergraduate, graduate, and professional—to develop their social-emotional skills through civic experiences in and out of the classroom. The initiative will also generate new knowledge for the benefit of other institutions.

More at the link.

on the Deep State, the administrative state, and the civil service

The last few days have seen several prominent articles about “the Deep State”: by David Remnick in the New Yorker, Marc Ambinder in The Washington Post, Julie Hirschfeld Davis in the New York Times, and Kevin Williamson in The National Review, among others. I’d been thinking of writing myself, and I think we need some definitions:

  • The Civil Service: a body of government employees who are protected against political patronage and dismissal without cause in return for embracing norms of nonpartisanship, public service, and professionalism.
  • The Administrative State: government agencies that make and enforce rules and regulations (in contrast to statutes enacted by legislatures) and/or directly manage public resources, such as land.
  • The National Security Apparatus: military and spy agencies as well as police agencies concerned with terrorism, foreign espionage, and subversion.
  • Bureaucracy: any large organization divided into specialized offices, each requiring appropriate training and having defined roles and responsibilities, the whole being organized hierarchically and aimed at achieving some predefined or externally defined end or purpose.
  • The Deep State: a group of people within any or all of the above who collude secretly to pursue their own shared agenda, which may reflect their self-interest or an ideological interest contrary to the goals of elected leaders.

Some observations based on those definitions:

Most of the above definitely exist. Whether the (or a) Deep State exists is a matter of conjecture. One reason that the answer is not obvious is that the National Security Apparatus is cloaked in considerable secrecy. But secrecy is necessary for the existence of such an apparatus at all, and is not indefensible. There are many things we would like our government to know yet not publicly disclose. State secrecy is a problem for a democracy but not necessarily an avoidable one.

If there is a Deep State, it would form within one or more bureaucracies yet would subvert them. That is because bureaucracies constrain their employees to carry out defined tasks, but people who collude for their own agendas are evading such constraints.

The Deep State could exist within the National Security Apparatus, the domestic civic service, or both. Americans in a large swath of the center-left and left tend to be critical of US foreign policy but supportive of regulation and the welfare state. Some of them have feared secret agendas in the National Security Apparatus while viewing officials in the domestic welfare and regulatory agencies as dedicated civil servants. Americans in a large swath of the right have been more supportive of foreign policy than of domestic policy, so they have been prone to see soldiers, police officers, and spies as public servants, and other federal employees as uncontrollable bureaucrats. However, the hard right has also been critical of foreign policy, so there have been Deep State narratives on the right at least since the McCarthy Era. Some on the hard left see the domestic policy apparatus as basically a Deep State devoted to disciplining the poor, but I hear less of that than I used to 20 years ago.

To the extent that we have a genuine civil service, it is designed to push back against elected officials and political appointees. That is not sign of a conspiracy but evidence that popular sovereignty conflicts with such values as scientific rigor and legal consistency. The civil service has a checks-and-balances relationship with elected politicians.

Finally, we do have a problem with the Administrative State, but it is not a conspiracy or anything wrong with the people who work in it. Theodore Lowi was a very fine political scientist whose death on Feb. 17 didn’t get enough attention. Lowi argued that liberals built the regulatory and administrative agencies to enact demanding values for which they had received popular support. But the agencies that liberals created do not have legitimacy to make value-judgments themselves. In lieu of making explicit value-judgments, they claim to make their decisions based on science, efficiency, precedent, or stakeholder negotiation. But they actually make value judgments every day. This creates a crisis of legitimacy that threatens the liberal project.

Another way to make Lowi’s argument is to note that the Administrative State is not envisioned in our Constitution (nor is a permanent National Security Apparatus). Agencies are widely understood as parts of the executive branch or as arms of Congress. (They even employ their own judges, which makes them resemble the judicial branch.) I think a better interpretation is that they represent a fourth branch altogether, which has developed since 1900. It should embody certain norms, such as impartiality, rigor, and predictability, and it should be designed to push and pull with the branches that reflect popular will (Congress and the presidency), deliberation (Congress), discretion and flexibility (the presidency), and law (the judiciary). We should expect tension between the president and the administrative agencies and improve our means of resolving those tensions.

As long as we do not regard the Administrative State as a branch with its own norms and standing, we should expect constant crises of legitimacy, because the existence of this branch has never been recognized by the American people. This is not to defend or rationalize Stephen K. Bannon’s attack on the administrative state. But there is a deeper and longer-term problem that will require attention sooner or later.

See also:  the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitutionthe public interest and why it matters;  problems with “stakeholders”; and on government versus governance, or the rule of law versus pragmatism.