Meyer & Tarrow: The Social Movement Society

946055I confess, there are a lot of angry notations in the margins of The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century, edited by Meyer and Tarrow.

I won’t burden you with all of them. I suppose books are meant to provoke as much as inspire.

Their introduction opens the book, frames the book, is essentially a hypothesis put forward which other authors are all responding to. Their idea of a movement society advances three main points:

  • First, social protest has moved from being a sporadic, if recurring feature of democratic politics, to become a perpetual element in modern life

  • Second, protest behaviour is employed with greater frequency, by more diverse constituencies, and is used to represent a wider range of claims than ever before.

  • Third, professionalization and institutionalization may be changing the major vehicle of contentious claims–the social movement–into an instrument within the realm of conventional politics. (4)

Here is their definition of social movement:

We begin from the assumption that the social movement is a historical and not a universal way of mounting collective claims. Movements, in our view, are best defined as collective challenges to existing arrangements of power and distribution by people with common purposes and solidarity, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities. (4)

A bit broad, right? Also doesn’t capture much about scale, number and diversity of organisations, groups and individuals involved.

I don’t think this is entirely useful, this idea of social movement. I lean more to the idea that what is happening now is as much protest as caring people can manage in the absence of mass movement. I love much more the work of say Aldon Morris, who studies a concrete movement and looks at what is built and nurtured in hard times to serve as a foundation for when the spark comes and mass movement makes more structural and meaningful change possible. I think what Meyer and Tarrow define as  social movement is simply protest — and in this world of growing inequality, war and climate change, there is a lot to protest. That it is becoming less contentious though more widespread…that’s not too provocative:

In general, the evidence from both Europe and the United States suggests that the amount of highly contentious forms accepted and actually used by citizens seems to be more circumscribed than it was two decades ago. (8)

But what follows takes the decades following the sixties as a one-way and universalised trajectory rather than a cycle or spiral or any of the other potential forms (more likely trajectories based on my own research). It is in great part divorced from history despite their claims of historicity, from the wider social context of intensive repression, red-baiting, backlash, end of the cold war etc etc. that has taken place in the intervening decades:

A paradox is inherent in the professionalization of social movement organizations. Whereas the movements of the 1960s were animated by a democratic ethos that encouraged and legitimated participation at the grassroots of society, the following years demonstrated that the skills and resources for mounting the efforts that comprise a social movement could be, in fact, concentrated, reproduced, and professionalized. Those who developed those skills, taking them from one movement to another, may lose a connection with the groups they purported to represent. Professionalization is about drawing boundaries (Moore 1996) between accredited persons and others. Although the fuzzy boundaries between professional activists and their constituencies may support the ethos of democracy, they may also undermine the prospects of sustained and effective mobilization. Ironically, a movement organization concerned with effecting democratic reforms in the polity may be most effective by abandoning certain democratic and amateurish political practices. New technologies and forms of social organization have complicated this picture further. (15)

I don’t think this question makes much sense divorced from previous decades and centuries of protest and struggle preceding the 60s, all of which themselves come between periods of repression and greater conservatism. How does this match what happened to unions and activists drawn into bureaucracy and organisation after the Great Depression? While I think it’s important to look at professionalization and the changes modern protest groups have gone through in reaction to changing times, the questions the editors end up asking generalise from a very small period in history. They are also divorced from what drives social movement, divorced from questions on injustice, from the life and death issues many social movements engage with and do the best they can to address in widely different circumstances.  Those are the questions I am most interested in, and I missed them.

But, to return to what they do do, they argue institutionalization occurs through:

  • the routinization of collective action (familiar scripts)
  • inclusion and marginalization — those willing to play ball get access, others more easily shut out
  • cooptation – ‘challengers later their claims and tactics to ones that can be pursued without disrupting the normal practice of politics.’ (21)

Again, more interesting in a wider context, but still good things to analyse. So ‘How do ongoing changes in contemporary institutions affect the process of institutionalising dissent?’

  1. ‘social movement activists have learned to move between conventional and unconventional collective actions, and even to employ both sorts of strategies in combination’
  2. ‘police practices increasingly encourage the routinization of contention by cooperating with protestors in planning their events, avoiding provocations, and allowing them a public but circumscribed hearing.’ (23)
  3. ‘the tactics used by movement organizations and those used by more institutionalized groups increasingly overlap. (24)

These seem a bit common sense, especially in light of activists and organisations hunkering down through a period of more limited engagement, though I do think that we are seeing discourses and tactics of activism being coopted by those traditionally on the other side. That is interesting, but not really what they are getting at here…nor are they getting at what people think they can win through making these decisions to move towards institutionalisation that they can’t through more combative struggle — and why.

‘… because of the increasing incentives to engage in socially controlled collective action in our societies today, can we still regard the social movement in its classical form as a major player in the political struggle? (25)

I noted here, ‘everything about this sentence is wrong’. Nothing has ever been won for the poor and the oppressed without a struggle involving a whole lot of people. Perhaps this is not in evidence today, but I sure as hell hope it is not dead entirely. Does socially controlled collective action diffuse some of this anger, make this harder? That is a good question, but not exactly one answered here. Does it mean we’re back to armed revolution, to riots? Or is this the end of all opposition? Who can tell.

Finally, if states have become adept at institutionalizing movements and activists are becoming both more professional and more interchangeable with interest groups in their activities, what will happen to those actors who refuse the blandishments of recognition and legitimation? Will they profit as free riders from the institutionalization of protest? Will they simply fade away…? (26)

Sweet baby Jesus. Free riders? Really? I think there is no single phrase in the English language (that is not abusive) that I hate more than the term free rider. Technically free rider as a term includes babies and small children, people suffering from mental illness and physical disability, the elderly, all those people that for whatever reason can’t face down police to make a better world. Technically that word destroys the concept of a movement that cares for and works towards a better future for the entire society, not just ‘our’ people or the ‘deserving’. And then to question will they simply fade away? Not until the issues driving them to change the world do because movements arise out of real injustices, real suffering. No sign of that ending.

I plowed through the rest of the chapters, but given my feelings about the usefulness of the hypothesis, it wasn’t that useful.

I liked some of the content from ‘The Institutionalization of Protest’ by John McCarthy and Clark McPhail — yet it compares protests at the 1968 and 1996 Democratic National Conventions in Chicago without really acknowledging the immense differences in political moment. A time of insecurity and fear and mass movement in 1968 after over a decade of intense civil rights protest with real threats to the power structure and a growing move from non-violence to the Black Panthers and Black Power — and how does that compare to 1996 again? How does that shape police response shifting from ‘escalated force’ to ‘negotiated management’ (96)?

This article — and all of these arguments due to the framing —  separate the content of injustice from those protesting, it often (though not everyone does this) conflates social movement with ‘social movement organizations’ yet often fails to recognize the broad range of organisations still fighting, the interlocking array of tactics…doesn’t recognise that anti-racism struggles, homeless rights struggles, women’s and immigrant rights struggles aren’t just something that can be picked up or let go but mean life and death for many, and determine the strategies and tactics of groups and institutions closest to them accordingly. And those decisions are entirely about political moment and context.

Everything here is so tidy.

The police, for example, are seen as monolithic, but really they form a complex bureaucracy with many different (and disagreeing) parts — and one that continues killing black and latino people let’s not forget.

But Public Order Management Systems are interesting, defined as:

…the more or less elaborated, more or less permanent organizational forms, their guiding policies and programs, technologies, and standard policing practices that are designated by authorities for supervising protesters’ access to public space and managing them in that space. (91)

They quote a few stellar things, like this 1989 statement published in the journal of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)

[The Police] are…the first line of defense for the First Amendment rights to assemble peacefully and speak freely. Few unpopular ideas would ever get a public hearing unless the police were on hand to ensure the speaker’s safety and maintain order . . . The recognition of the police role as guardians of civil liberties and civil rights is one of the welcome fruits of the professionalization of law enforcement over the last several decades (McCarthy  & McPhail p. 89 quoting Burden 1992, p. 16)

They are not as astonished (or angered) by it as I am however. Break out the Don Mitchell and analyse how the opposite is true. Then there is this, from the City of San Francisco crowd management manual:

Pre-event Planning: …If event sponsors do not come forward to obtain needed permits…the Event Coordinator will … attempt to locate them and set up meetings. (94, quoting SFPD 1989, pp. 8-10)

Another nugget — these courses in public order management were developed by the U.S. Army Police School. There’s a whole lot to be done with that. But then it is all ruined with a line at the end about the police and protestors wishing to reduce the extent of ‘unintended violence.’ (109) Jesus. As though it were unintended.

These are the lines of lived experience often separating the poor, people of colour, and activists from researchers. No one where I grew up or ever worked with would believe it to be unintended — at least, not by everyone. Maybe there’d be a couple of people that saw it as a PR disaster, or even as morally wrong. But honestly, police brutality against certain communities and the ‘social movements’ working around those issues happens every day.

Then there are discussions of protest movements in Latin America with no acknowledgment of what they are up against: US military intervention, the IMF and World Bank… this happened in several chapters, and how can you properly discuss international and transnational strategies and coalition building without that understanding and analysis? And just for the record, I cannot respect the argument that the US Congress and Treasury Department or the World Bank are the people to lobby to tell Latin American states to protect indigenous rights. They are the people to lobby to demand they stop telling other governments to violate indigenous rights.

I will end with a shout out to what was good — I did really like Mary Fainsod Katzenstein’s ‘Stepsisters: Feminist Movement Activism in Different Institutional Spaces’ and the different struggles of women in the military and the Catholic Church over time. That was quite fascinating, firmly based in women’s experience and their own words, and nuanced. Yay.

Anyway, this raised good questions in my mind about institutionalisation of protest, how this shapes organisations and everyday experience of protest and what it can (and can’t win), and how this will shape what is possible for the future, but I’m not sure that’s where most of this was heading.

[Meyer, David S. and Sidney Tarrow (eds) (1998) The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.]

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