The ontological question of social movements—what are social movements?—is particularly important given that one of the fundamental aspects of the scientific approach consists in defining its object of study, elucidating its nature, finding its essential properties in order to better understand it.
Nonetheless, the answer to this question is complex, on the one hand, to the extent that it is ample and may easily lead, because of its nature or links in the history of philosophy with theology and metaphysics, to speculative theories disconnected from objective reality or empirical facts, and, on the other hand, as this is demonstrated by the existence of different and sometimes antithetic interpretations within social sciences.
A way of dealing with this question and containing it, notably to avoid metaphysical deviations, consists in addressing the concrete composition of social movements—this is what we shall perform in this work via the observation of the composition of present-day social movements related to alter-globalization in general and of contemporary Portuguese movements that integrate these previous movements in particular (from an ethnography).
Notwithstanding, including here, one cannot escape from the problem of its interpretation. Regarding this, indeed, one can distinguish two great tendencies within social sciences. The former that can be called materialistic relies upon the heritage of Marxian and Marxist theories while the latter that can be named, by contrast, postmaterialistic or idealistic falls within what has been termed “new social movement theories.”
One of the shared features between these two tendencies beyond their differences and oppositions is that the collective composition of social movements is generally defined at large from what is at stake for their members or society sensu lato, from the nature of militants’ objectives, from the change to which they aspire or, on the contrary, from the conservation that they want to preserve. The determination of social movements is therefore explained or justified from the determination of their final or teleological cause, that is, from the real or potential consequences of their actions.
In this sense, are there specificities of contemporary stakes within society and correlatively of current movements in relation to prior objectives and movements? If yes, what are they? Why? What are current social movements? Are present-day stakes reducible to the material or, on the contrary, to the ideal? Consequently, are contemporary social movements identical to socioeconomic subjects or, by contrast, do they subsume categories of actors related to the cultural and symbolic?
I. Materialism and the working class
The stakes within capitalism would be essentially economic or material because this social regime would be above all characterized by specific social relations of production based upon the division between the bourgeois socioeconomic class and the working class. Moreover, because this division would imply an opposition in terms of material interests—to their advantage and to the detriment of the latter, capitalists would economically dominate proletarians— it would follow a class antagonism and social movements that would emerge would be essentially formed by and composed of the workers who would seek to transform this situation of exploitation or economic oppression in their favor.
Succinctly, this is the main interpretation, inherited from Marxism, which has considered that there is a material basis within societal stakes and consequently that social movements gather socioeconomic subjects. In the historical case of capitalism, these subjects are the exploited people, that is, the working class.
In other words, following this perspective, since Marx’s theses, civil society would not have fundamentally evolved in regard to its contexture. It would be still dominated by capitalistic forces in the West and on a global scale by Western capitalists. In this sense, the phenomenon of globalization would be especially the globalization of capital. Whatever the sociocultural contexts, civil society would be characterized by socioeconomic stratification and class difference. It would serve less the oppressed and the exploited than established political and economic elites. In other words, this would be a hierarchized social arena wherein social positions and relations are imbalanced and that is profitable for capitalists. Thus, it would also be the arena of iterative conflicts between divergent class interests. In these conditions where the unequal economy of civil society appears as universal, the working class would still remain the determinant agent of social change or revolution—the subject of history—to the extent that capital still needs benefits produced by labor in order to reproduce itself, because capital is intrinsically dependent on labor for its own existence (capitalism’s immanent contradiction that will ineluctably lead it to its fall), and, since workers are always numerically superior, hold majority.
II. Postmaterialism, the middle classes, and the bourgeoisie
However, a core objection that one can put forward is that the previous interpretation tends to offer a crystallized and frozen vision of social movements and capitalism. It seems that this interpretation, a direct consequence of the philosophy of history related to dialectical materialism, is itself paradoxically metahistorical or ahistorical. This is the case maybe because it is perceived as the ultimate state in the agonistic history of human societies. Thus, one has the impression that capitalism has remained the same since the nineteenth century and correlatively that the stakes and social movements in their respective composition have also remained fundamentally unchanged over this same period of time. If one may suppose that initially the stakes inside capitalism were material and that social movements were merged with the working class, one may also legitimately wonder whether this situation does not have been altered thereafter because of historical dynamics.
This criticism was implicitly followed by new social movement theoreticians by presenting a radical structural transformation of capitalism in the wake of World War II.
This period, named Les Trente Glorieuses (referring to “the Glorious Thirty” years after the Second World War, from 1945 to 1975) or “the Welfare State,” featured economic growth, a better redistribution of wealth under the aegis of the State, and social welfare for a large part of the population in various Western countries (even though not all were concerned and there existed several degrees among the countries that were involved in these dynamics). A new capitalism arose, founded on services and information as core goods of production, circulation, and consumption and on high capital flexibility, great diversification, and destructuration of social relations of production. For many commentators, in the 1960s and 1970s, capitalism would have reached its ultimate stage; since then, it would have been characterized by its postindustrial, postmaterial, and postmodern dimensions. Thus, industrial economy that replaced rural economy over the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century would have been in turn substituted by services economy based essentially on knowledge, information exchanges, symbols, images, and communication. It would be the age of the immaterial and virtual through the development of mass media and computer science. Moreover, contrary to industrial economy, the new economy of services would rest less upon social nexuses of production than upon social links of consumption (Meiksins Wood 1996: 21–23; Morris-Suzuki 2000: 66–68).
Besides, nowadays, in the new stage of capitalism, domination would be less economic than cultural, especially through hegemonic institutions of education and communication that would diffuse elites’ particularistic values, norms, and truths—in brief, their discourses—to the whole of the people. These institutions (schools, universities, the media, etc.) would make and manipulate signs, icons, languages, and texts in order to shape the populations’ mind according to power holders’ representations; popular cultures would be therefore jeopardized by the domination of the elitist culture (Epstein 1997).
Political economy would therefore be less pertinent to understand social mechanisms, and materialistic interpretations would be to a large extent null and void.
These structural transformations of Western societies in the post–World War II period would have had effects on the contexture of classes, their nature, their links, on the working class.
Thus, a growing proportion of the working class politically and economically would have integrated capitalistic social regime and joined the middle classes and consumption society. The working class would have ceased to form a united and homogeneous totality and would have become fragmented and diversified. In other words, the working class per se would have been drastically reduced—a phenomenon that was also called “class retreat”—to the extent that the Welfare State would have caused the “gentrification” of the proletarian class. The extreme division between the working class and capitalists would no longer be valid. The differences between proletarians and the bourgeoisie would have decreased with the numerical growth of the middle classes, an intermediary social category. As a core result, the conversion of industrial societies into postindustrial ones would have made the idea of class at large less central for the understanding of the new societies (Nederveen 1992: 19; Philion 1998: 80).
Simultaneously, these effects on the working class would have repercussions on social movements, their composition, and their aims.
Class retreat would have therefore provoked the disappearance or at least the weakening of the working class’s social movement and diverse organizations such as trade unions and political parties. Thus, social movements would no longer be formed by the working class and would essentially stem from the middle classes, petty and middle bourgeoisie. Their objectives would no longer be economic and material but rather immaterial and symbolic (Touraine 1969, 1973, 1978; Habermas 1981; Melucci 1989, 1996; Holst 2002).
III. Materialism and postmaterialism: The universality of social movements
Notwithstanding, by radically calling into question Marxian and Marxist assertions regarding the composition of social movements and the nature of the stakes within capitalism, new social movement theories tend to show the same kind of partiality and exclusivity. By replacing the predicate “material” by that of “immaterial” or “postmaterial” for the same subject “stakes” and by substituting “the working class” by “the middle classes and the bourgeoisie” in the composition of social movements, they put forward an antithesis that presents the same shortcomings of monolithism and stasis as the thesis that they denounce. In fact, reflection thanks to and from empirical experiences should allow to overcome this old antinomy that is pointless.
Indeed, an ethnography of present-day Portuguese social movements—which are linked in their forms and contents to alter-globalist movements belonging to a plurality of geographical, political, economic, and sociocultural contexts—has shown that they are constituted and set in motion by a diversity of individuals who integrate various social categories. Within them, there are workers, the exploited or economically oppressed persons, echoing Marxist and materialistic conceptions of the type of social movements, because economic domination under the form of exploitation continues to exist within contemporary capitalism. But, this time following new social movement theories and postmaterialistic acceptations, there are also individuals of the middle classes, of the petty and middle bourgeoisie, with university degrees and skills in the new technologies of information and communication to the extent that axiological, deontic, and cognitive objectives determine militants’ actions as well. And there are even new figures that have not been taken into consideration by these two prior approaches. These new types refer to “the precarious,” “the marginals,” “the informals,” “the excluded,” “the indigents”—types that show that the genus economic domination is not reducible to economic exploitation and subsumes several species, notably a growing and chronic mass unemployment and underemployment.
For instance, in one of the approached movements that focus upon issues of political economy in the Portuguese context, in Europe, and at the world scale, militants embraced a variety of social strata. First, following the main objectives of this movement, there were economists (or better said, “alter-economists,” according to their own apperceptions), students, and professionals, who, by their social status and origin, form part of the Portuguese middle classes. But, despite the movement’s goals, economists were far from being the principal category. “Non-economists”—that is, people who do not study economics at universities or other educational institutions, as well as people who do not work as economists or practice a related profession—formed a more significant group even though, to a certain extent, by their commitment in their social movement, they also became “alter-economists” and therefore, a fortiori, “economists.” More precisely, in this specific sub-collective of non-economists, whose members also stem from the Portuguese middle classes but not exclusively, one could find, for instance, physicians, singers, artists, restaurant owners, retired persons, and unemployed and underemployed people (therefore, precarious people having material difficulties and uncertainties). At large, this movement encompassed or aspired to comprise “citizens, women and men, workers, migrants, students, unemployed and retired persons,” according to its public statements.
In a second studied movement, which is essentially concerned by ecological matters, there also existed a wide range of social affiliations, as its proper activists acknowledged—affiliations that are closely akin to those of the aforementioned movement: students in large part but also academic researchers, professionals in agroecology, retired people, children, women, men, workers, and jobless and subemployed people. Nevertheless, all this diversity of membership was subsumed under the central categories invented by activists themselves that correspond to their apperceptions or the conscious perception of oneself by oneself, echoing Leibniz in Monadology. These categories include “social horticulturists” (because, as a main objective to face market logics that deplete natural resources, threaten the environment, and erode social welfare, these activists create, organize, and manage autonomous, small vegetable gardens, principally in abandoned places in the city), “liberators of fields,” “garden guerrilleros” (since they are definitively opposed to GMOs cultivation and commercialization and seek to impede their implantation in agricultural fields, sometimes through direct actions of reaping), and “seedbombers” (as they seek to grow plants and trees wherever possible in the city to render it more green, beautiful, and pleasant).
A third and last considered social movement was essentially put in motion by “precarious people,” as the proper militants define themselves, to the extent that its core aim was, in abstracto, the struggle against precariousness at work and, in extenso, in the life. For these activists, being precarious means to be jobless; to have fixed-term, temporary, or discontinuous labor contracts; to earn little money to live through their work, social aids, family support, or incomes of any kind when they exist; and to decline support from social public agencies when they have no job or have just lost it. Moreover, precariousness entails to have a job (and consequently to be) stigmatized and criminalized by hegemonic morals (such as prostitution) or to be obliged to become freelance workers in order to bear all the risks and charges linked to a profession, whereas one is actually employed by a private or public organization (this phenomenon is common and largely spread in Portugal, despite its illegal character according to the proper Portuguese labor law, and is named “false green receipts”—freelancers have to use receipt books to charge de jure their customers who are de facto their employers). The precarious also refer to the people who have a scholarship instead of a labor contract, who have a long training period while they are already qualified and possess all required experience. Or, it is tantamount to be indebted before banks, not to protest, and to remain silent before their state of precariousness for fear of losing a job so hard to obtain despite its mediocrity.
In this sense, the idea of precariousness comprehends workers, notably sex workers and the whole of workers belonging to underground economy (informals and those excluded from the legal socioeconomic system), the unemployed, false and imposed freelancers who are not in fact autonomous and exclusively work for a sole entity (public or private), the exploited (even “the overexploited” as activists stated), entertainment and audiovisual intermittents, academic researchers who cumulate temporary postdoctoral scholarships during several years (for those who manage to get scholarships—the others, the vast majority—are often constrained to orient themselves toward new fields of activities outside the university), trainees during an indefinite long time, and so forth.
Notwithstanding, the cause defended by this movement is also espoused by people who are not precarious sensu stricto or from a strictly material point of view (the meaning of the notion of precariousness essentially followed by this movement). Indeed, like in the prior movements, citizens of all kinds—men, women, transsexuals, children, employees, students, young people, academics, artists, migrants, retired people, elders—took part in this collective as well. Fundamentally, as the proper activists apperceive, their movement is “a movement of persons, a movement of wills…we all fit!”
In any case, the materialistic dimension remains central within social movements even though it is not irreducible and reciprocally acts with postmaterialistic forms, that is, with dimensions related to the cultural, the symbolic, and the identity.
Moreover, there is no longer a unique determinant social actor that would be to the forefront of social movements and mobilizations, such as the emblematic working class in the classic Marxist acceptations.
These general features are irreducible to the Portuguese situation and its movements. They appear in other societies, especially in the framework of movements linked to the phenomenon of alter-globalization, movements that contest the current model of globalization and its applications, that propose alternatives at the world level, and with which, as we have just mentioned, the studied movements in Portugal are related from an ideal and organizational point of view.
What is the nature of present-day social movements? Contrary to common Marxist interpretations, according to some postmodern theoreticians, contemporary movements would no longer be formed by the working class and essentially result from the middle classes, petty and middle bourgeoisie. Their objectives would no longer be economic and material but rather immaterial and symbolic.
Actually, present-day social movements are usually spaces that ensure a certain public sphere, which is not exclusively reserved to a sole particular social class—that is, neither only the bourgeoisie nor uniquely the popular strata, but rather a sphere that aims for universality by incorporating wide and diverse sectors of society.
In other words, current movements are composed of workers, alongside the middle classes, petty and middle bourgeoisie as well. They are trans-class. They unite a plurality of individuals belonging to different social strata, from social outcasts to the most favored social strata with a relative importance of the middle classes having a fairly high level of education.
The materialistic substratum has reappeared within movements in the age of contemporary capitalism founded on services, information, and new technologies insofar as economic domination continues to exist. But, current movements also include “precarious,” “marginals,” “informals,” “excluded,” and “poor people”—and not only workers, the exploited, and the economically oppressed—because economic domination takes different concrete modalities that are irreducible to economic exploitation.
Moreover, alongside their materialistic substratum, they still have an idealistic substratum, such as the questions related to ethics and knowledge.
In sum, contemporary movements transcend the traditional dichotomies, more theoretical than real, between “old” and “new” movements, between the materialism generally ascribed to the former and the postmaterialism or idealism attributed, by contrast, to the latter. They therefore realize a synthesis between these two dimensions—the old/new or the materialism/idealism—that are no longer opposed but integrated and associated because contemporary societal stakes are both material and immaterial and nurture each other.
Cédric Masse is Associate Researcher at the Research Centre on Political Action, University of Lausanne and at the Centre for Research in Anthropology, Lisbon University Institute. As a sociologist and anthropologist, he has worked for several years on issues related to social movements, NGOs, civil society, and social change and development.
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Cite as: Masse, Cédric. 2014. “Identities of Portuguese urban social movements: Universality and class heterogeneity,” FocaalBlog, October 23, www.focaalblog.com/2014/10/23/cedric-masse-identities-of-portuguese-urban-social-movements-universality-and-class-heterogeneity.