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May 24, 2013 / C H Thompson

New Social Movements

dissentPostmodern theories of power and politics stress the ever increasing widening of the political debate, particularly the way in which conventional politics is being usurped by new social movements (NSMs). Foucault’s perspectives on the power of discourses is particularly useful in understanding the dynamics behind NSMs, especially in relation to power. While Lyotard’s position regarding the decline of metanarratives is also useful in understanding the postmodern perspective on politics.

This is because people are no longer feel confident (not certain) in relying on the all embracing ideologies underpinning the established political parties in coming up with the answers.

Society, particularly a global society, is far too complex (full of uncertainties) for a single political ideology to solve. Like Foucault, Lyotard sees knowledge as the main source of power in postmodern societies, and is critical of (zero sum game) one single metanarrative (eg Marxism) having all the answers. Instead mechanisms like NSMs provide specialist more localised knowledge to specific  issues which takes the power away from politicians and puts it in the hands of civil society organisations (a variable sum approach).

Hallsworth (1994) argues the term ‘new social movements’ is applicable to movements which ‘pose new challenges to the established, cultural, economic and political orders’ through challenging certain issues. This means NSMs tend to fall into two ‘issued based’ categories:

1. issues or threats to the natural environment e.g – Greenpeace; Friends of the Earth; Animal Liberation Front; CND; Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe

2. issues which further the civil rights of historically marginalised groups (emancipatory politics) e.g – Campaign Against Racism and Fascism; Action for Rights on Children; Defend Peaceful Protest; Outrage

Then there are NSMs like the Anti-Capitalists who challenge the established economic system of capitalism by utilising new technologies to its advantage.

The above groups differ from conventional party politics and traditional pressure groups (old social movements, OSMs) in several distinct ways:

1. areas not normally defined as being in the political arena, such as housework, domestic violence, prejudice etc are now seen as areas of political interest

2. focus on social and cultural issues instead of the economic issues of traditional social movements

3. they reject traditional formal structures normally found with OSMs, for more informal connections eg Twitter, Facebook such structures have no formal hierarchy or elites

4. distrust for authorities, the government, the business community or the scientific community, instead NSMs challenge the legitimacy of institutions of power and promote their own experts (Garner, 1996) or create their own independent research institutes as SMOs

5. they don’t seek to replace existing political parties with their own movement; instead they use civil disobedience as well as other media to promote their cause

6. most members tend to be young and from the new middle-class (public sector workers)

7. both a global and local orientation such as anti-capitalist movement; this is evident in the slogan ‘think global, act local

8. efficient use of new technologies creating  global connections and networks; such global networks coordinated the massive  demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, against the G8 Meeting in Genoa (Italy) in 2002 and the worldwide protests against the War in Iraq in 2003

9. they emerged in from a growth in liberal democratic societies in the 1960s and 1970s (Hallsworth, 1994)

However the above distinction between OSMs and NSMs is not necessarily seen as so clear cut. Cohen and Shirin argue against Hallsworth’s position citing exmaples of OSMs which they believe meet the criteria identified above but were formed ‘long before 1960s’.

Anti-Aparthied_banner_webpageFor Cohen and Shirin there are numerous social movements founded before 1960s which though identified as traditional pressure groups (OSMs) they clearly meet the NSM criteria. One of these being the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which clearly show concerns for both power and inequality (emancipatory politics). Nevertheless Cohen and Shirin agree there are some clearly distinctions with contemporary NSMs:

1. there use of new-media for tactical and innovative protesting

2. the use of new-media in moving local struggles to global battles

Let’s take a look at an email from 38 Degrees to see if they’re a pressure group or NSM?

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