'The Authors and the Actors of Their Own Drama': Towards a Marxist Theory of Social Movements

Article excerpt

To thoroughly examine all these questions, is it not to make real profane history of the men in each century, to represent these men at the same time as the authors and the actors of their own drama? But from the moment that you represent men as the actors and authors of their own history you have, by detour, arrived at the actual point of departure since you have abandoned the eternal principles from which you at first set out. (Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)


Marxism a body of theory that emanated from and was crafted for social movements. Indeed, the work of Marx arguably best understood as a distillation of the experiences, debates, theories and conflicts faced by the popular movements of the nineteenth century, and their work in turn sought to contribute to the further development of these popular movements. Furthermore, the subsequent evolution of Marxist theory in the twentieth century has been intimately linked to the development of oppositional political projects across the globe, ranging from revolutionary struggles against old empires to anti-colonial movements and the emergence of new forms of subaltern assertion in the post-Second World War era. Given this intimate link between theoretical and political labours, it is indeed a paradox that Marxism does not possess a theory that specifically explains the emergence, character and development of social movements (see Cox, 1999). However, it is precisely its origins in and orientation towards the crucible of forces and struggles that have shaped and continue to shape the modern capitalist world that endows Marxism with a prescient relevance in terms of understanding and advancing the forms of oppositional collective action commonly grouped under the 'social movement' rubric. Unearthing this relevance, rendering it coherent and attuning it to the practical requirements of contemporary popular struggles requires some groundwork, and in this article, I seek to make an initial contribution in this direction.

The critical point of departure here is the claim recently voiced by Flacks (2004: 138) and Bebbington and Dixon (2005: 186) concerning dominant approaches to the study of social movements--namely, that mainstream movement theory fails to produce 'useable knowledge for those seeking social change' and, as a consequence, also fails to be of relevance to 'the very movements that it seeks to illuminate'. This is not to say that activists are uninterested in theory--knowledge production is, of course, a crucial part of social movement practice (Eyerman & Jamison, 1991; Kilgore, 1999); but that rather than 'reading the dominant social movement theory, [activists] are generating theory largely outside of academic circles' (Bevington & Dixon, 2005: 186). Following Barker and Cox (2002), it might be argued that this scenario arises from the differing knowledge interests that animate activist and academic theorising about social movements. Whereas activists produce theoretical knowledge for and within social movements with a view to generating appropriate proposals for specific actions in a specific conflictual setting, academics produce knowledge about social movements with a view to providing generic explanations of chains of causality that fit most, if not all, social movements. Movements, in this latter view, become objects to be observed, described and explained, rather than processes that are actively constructed so as to meet needs that are not currently being met.

The knowledge interest that Barker and Cox identify at the heart of mainstream academic research arguably also explains some of the critiques that have been raised about the theoretical weaknesses of the dominant trends in US and European social movement theory. In the US context, this applies to the criticism of the narrowness of the resource-mobilisation and political process paradigms pioneered by McCarthy and Zald (1977) and Tilly (1978), McAdam (1982) and Tarrow (1988, 1998) respectively. The focus in resource-mobilisation theory on how 'social movement organisations' mobilise money and elite support, and in the political process approach on the ways social movements make use of 'political opportunity structures' in their interaction with established political institutions, posits instrumental rationality as the pulse of movement operations, thus closing off from view 'the direct pleasures of protest, the moral visions being pursued, and the emotions accompanying political activities' (Jasper, 1997: 33) that are at the heart of activist experience. (1) Moreover, as Melucci (1989: 23) has pointed out, these perspectives are marred by a 'political reductionism' in which social movements are seen strictly as 'collective actors seeking inclusion into a political market'. This leads to a displacement of those aspects of social movement activity that concentrate on 'the need for self-realization in everyday life' (ibid: 33), as well as of those conjunctures in which social movements come to pursue anti-systemic projects that give rise to epochal changes in world history (Katsiaficas, 1987; Arrighi, Hopkins & Wallerstein, 1989). In the European context, a central concern in social movement theory and research has, of course, been the argument that changes in the structuration of modern society have given rise to 'new social movements' that champion issues, pursue projects, and mobilise social groups that are radically different from the politics of class that defined the machinations of previous generations of social movements (Habermas, 1987; Touraine, 1982; Melucci, 1989). Besides giving rise to a tiresome debate over the validity of the claim to 'newness' that has had little if any resonance beyond the boundaries of academia, (2) these perspectives were, as Cox (1995, 1999) has argued, marred by their preoccupation with highly abstract, meta-theoretical discourses of social change that fail to account for the actual extent to and practical ways in which movement participants link their own situated struggles to ideas and understandings about socio-historical totalities.

The chief objective of this article is to put forward a set of reflections on how social movements can be theorised on the basis of Marxist theory in ways that simultaneously overcome the shortcomings of mainstream paradigms and address activist knowledge interests. To this end, I shall present a theoretical framework that seeks to overcome a narrow, a priori view of the content of the rationalities that underpin and the dynamics that animate social movements by proposing a set of heuristic concepts that 'restricts its universals to the most abstract micro-analyses of human action and to the most general macro-perspectives on social order' (Cox, 1999: 15). Moreover, I shall propose a processual understanding of social movements that encompasses a wide spectrum of practices and projects, ranging from everyday struggles to counter-hegemonic political projects that are potentially interconnected through collective learning. I shall also broaden the definitional scope of social movements to incorporate the collective action of dominant social groups, in an attempt to highlight how the structures in relation to which subaltern groups mobilise are always and everywhere the outcome of human practice, rather than being absolute givens which, in a best-case scenario, can be modified through claims-making and negotiations with the institutionalised political order. In doing so, I hope not only to contribute to the forging of a theory that remains open-ended and sensitive to application in and on concrete empirical contexts, but also to the advancement of an approach to movement research that speaks more directly to the question that is, ultimately, at the heart of activist knowledge interests: What is to be done?

I have argued elsewhere that the starting point for a Marxist theory of social movements is to be found neither in a discussion of forces, relations and modes of production, nor in a discussion of base and superstructure or class and class struggle, but in the philosophical anthropology that constitutes the very bedrock of Marx's historical materialism (Nilsen, 2007). Thus, this article begins by briefly reiterating this argument and its ramifications in terms of an ontological conception of social movements. I then move on to argue that a Marxist theory of social movements needs to encompass the collective action of dominant social groups, and I propose the term 'social movement from above' to this end. I discuss the principal power resources that social movements from above command and draw on in their efforts to shape the structuration of human needs and capacities in such as way as to reproduce and extend the hegemony of dominant social groups, and the strategies through which they do so. I then engage with the collective action of subaltern social groups--what I shall refer to as 'social movements from below'. I argue that social movements from below originate as situated responses to particular infringements or constraints upon the development and satisfaction of human needs and capacities, but contain the contingent potentiality of expansive development towards more radical and encompassing forms of collective action. I suggest a series of heuristic categories for the analysis of the direction, form and meaning of such movement processes. In the final section, I sketch out an approach that conceptualises epochal changes in social formations as the outcome of struggles between social movements from above and from below over the structuration of human needs and capacities.

'At the heart of society burns the fire of social movements' (3)

The first step towards overcoming the narrowness that mars most mainstream conceptions of social movements lies in a recognition of the fundamental animating forces in the making and unmaking of social structures of human needs and capacities, and in conceiving of these animating forces as emanating both from dominant and subaltern groups within a social formation.

This perspective is moored in a conception of historical materialism in which praxis stands as the foundational ontological category, and as the substance of historical change and development. Praxis is understood here as the satisfaction of human needs through the conscious deployment of practical and corporeal capacities in historically evolving social formations. Constraints of space prevent a full discussion of Marx's philosophical anthropology in the present article; it will suffice to note that this particular conception of human species being remained constant in Marx's thought from his discussion of 'objectification' in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, via the outline of the fundamental principles of the materialist conception of history in The German Ideology, to the designation of 'the labour process' as the kernel of the mediation of needs and capacities in human life-activity in Capital (Marx, 1981; Marx & Engels, 1999; Marx, 1990; see also Geras, 1983; Fracchia, 1991, 2005; Nilsen, 2007).

Praxis is of course inherently developmental: 'the satisfaction of the first need ... leads to new needs; and this production of new needs is the first historical act' (Marx & Engels, 1999 [1845]: 49). And this spiral of developing needs and capacities is in turn intrinsically social and historical. The sociality of praxis flows from the fact that human beings go about the business of satisfying their needs in a cooperative manner, and this cooperation throws up social formations that in turn come to constitute a condition for the deployment of capacities for the satisfaction of needs. However, such lattice-works of social relations do not merely function as enabling conduits of praxis, but also as structural constraints by exerting pressures and setting limits. The outcome of the exertion of pressures and the setting of limits is the creation of a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities (Nilsen, 2007), which is reproduced over extended periods of time in relation to extant relations of power between dominant and subaltern groups within that social formation.

However, such structures--and the social formations in which they inhere--are not static; rather they are internally contradictory totalities that undergo constant processes of change as a result of contention between dominant and subaltern social groups over the structuration of needs and capacities. Such changes can take the form of modifications of a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities that leaves the overarching societal framework intact, or the form of systemic convulsions in which such structures and the social formation that has crystallised around them is fundamentally ruptured and replaced by something new and altogether different--this is the defining feature of the historicity of praxis. The former kind of change occurs when subaltern social groups mobilise collectively to either defend or carve out a space for the accommodation of their specific needs within an extant social formation; the latter takes place when subaltern groups develop new meanings and values, new practices, and new relationships and kinds of relationship around emergent structures of radical needs and capacities (Nilsen, 2007)--that is, sets of needs and capacities that have developed but cannot be fully satisfied and deployed within the confines of extant structures (see Heller, 1976).

On this view, a social movement can be defined as being the organisation of multiple forms of materially grounded and locally generated skilled activity around a rationality expressed and organised by (would-be) hegemonic actors, and against the hegemonic projects articulated by other such actors to change or maintain a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities and the social formation in which it inheres, in part or in whole (see Cox, 1999: 99). In this definition, praxis and its social organisation is posited as both the subject and object of social movements. Praxis is the subject of social movements in that movement activity is nothing more and nothing less than the conscious deployment of capacities to satisfy needs. Praxis is also the object of social movements in that movement activity seeks to effect changes in or maintain those structures through which human activity is socially organised, and/or the direction in which those structures are to develop (see Cox, 1999: 80). This in turn leads to a particular approach to social structures and social formations as 'the sediment of movement struggles'--that is, as a kind of 'truce line' which is 'continually probed for weaknesses by both sides and repudiated as soon as this seems worthwhile' (Cox, 1999: 98). When social structures and formations are investigated through this lens, they are approached in terms of the conflictual processes from which an extant truce line emerged, the character of the power relations inherent to that truce line, and the tendencies towards the formation of new forms of movement struggles that may lead to its dissolution. Crucially, the perspective I propose here does not restrict the referent of the term 'social movement' to the collective agency of subaltern social groups. Rather, I shall argue that social movements emanate from and are grounded in the collective skilled activity of both dominant and subaltern groups, and consequently I make a distinction between social movements from above and social movements from below, which also structures the argument that follows.

Social movements from above

'From castles and palaces and churches to prisons and workhouses and schools; from weapons of war to a controlled press', Williams (1977: 93) writes, 'any ruling class, in variable ways though always materially, produces a social and political order'. This productive activity constitutes the essence of the activity of social movements from above. A social movement from above can be defined as the organisation of multiple forms of skilled activity around a rationality expressed and organised by dominant social groups, which aims at the maintenance or modification of a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities in ways that reproduce and/or extend the power of those groups and its hegemonic position within a given social formation.

The skilled activities in question can range from 'best practice' production processes--be that agricultural improvement during the age of enclosures, or the global generalisation of Toyota's model of flexible production in the mid-1970s (Wood, 1999; Hoogvelt, 2001)--to political practices, which range from the US-aided coordination of counterinsurgency and interrogation techniques in Latin America in the 1970s to the generalisation of the neoliberal strategy of crisis management deployed in New York City in the mid-1970s (Klein, 2007: ch. 3, 4; Harvey, 2005: 44-8). Rationalities are typically expressed in ideological offensives such as the moral campaigns against 'sloth and indolence' during the era of primitive accumulation, or the anti-collectivist populism of Thatcher's regime (Perelman, 2000; Hall, 1983a), around which popular consent is sought. Organisation can range from the creation of small networks of notables such as Freemasonry, which in Britain brought together the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, or present-day neoliberal think-tanks and elite forums such as the Trilateral Commission and the World Economic Forum. It can also include political parties like the New Right of the 1980s and New Labour in the 1990s, and supranational institutions such as the World Bank and the WTO (Van Der Pijl, 1995; Gill, 1990; Robinson, 2004; Hall, 1983). Through such organisation, dominant social groups attain some sort of subjective unity amongst themselves--a unity which, as Roseberry (1995:78) points out, cannot be taken for granted but is rather created through the negotiation of 'sectoral differences' and 'spatial differentiation', centred on a project that seeks to maintain and/or extend dominance.

In articulating and carrying out such projects, movements from above typically draw on and mobilise the superior access of dominant social groups to economic, political and cultural power resources (Cox & Nilsen, 2006). I shall discuss each in turn.

Directive role in economic organisation

Social movements from above draw upon and seek to maintain or expand the directive role of a dominant class, or classes, or class fraction in economic organisation. This directive role consists in the ability to determine what is to be produced, how it is produced and for what purposes, and, most importantly, the ability to appropriate the surplus that this production yields. In other words, it consists of the ability to exploit the direct producers by 'compelling [them] to work longer than is necessary to produce the means of subsistence for themselves and their dependents' (Callinicos, 1988: 50). This ability in turn derives from the defining feature of class societies as such, namely that 'one or more of the smaller classes, in virtue of their control over the conditions of production ... will be able to exploit--that is, to appropriate a surplus at the expense of--the larger classes' (Ste. Croix, 1981: 44; see also Smith, 1991: 39, and Sohn-Rethel, 1978: 86-8).

Crucially, exploitation and thus also class relations as 'the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation' (Ste. Croix, 1981: 43), are not self-perpetuating features of society: they must be actively and consciously reproduced. This in turn follows from the fact that that exploitation 'will tend to evoke resistance, if only in such molecular forms as sabotage and ca'canny' (Callinicos, 1988: 51), and this resistance has to be actively curbed--through repression or accommodation--in order for accumulation to proceed as smoothly as possible and for extant power relations to be maintained or expanded. Furthermore, a determinate economic organisation that enables a determinate form of exploitation does not come about automatically, but has to be actively created through projects that seek to advance a new 'mode in which surplus labour [can be] extracted from the actual producer, the worker' (Marx, cited in Ste. Croix, 1981: 50. The point, then, is to emphasise the agency that lies behind what Marx (1990: 899) referred to as 'the silent compulsion of economic relations', both in terms of the conflictual genesis of a particular pattern of economic relations and the equally conflictual internal transmogrifications of that pattern, and how that agency is motivated by the perceived need to establish, maintain, extend or restore class power.

In capitalist society, exploitation occurs between 'two great hostile camps' (Marx & Engels, 2002 [1848]: 220): on the one hand, 'the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour', and on the other hand, 'the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live' (ibid: 219n.). The nexus between capital and labour represents 'the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few' (Marx & Engels, cited in Ste. Croix, 1981: 50). Finally, the dynamic and form of capitalism as a system of surplus appropriation constantly changes, and this is evident in the range of transitions between 'accumulation strategies' and 'hegemonic projects' (Jessop, 1990) in the historical development of the capitalist mode of production. In keeping with the emphasis on the agency that animates structuration, such changes are not to be conceived of as being governed by the objective laws of capital itself, but rather by the conflictual workings of 'the confrontation of the capitalist class's attempt to impose its social order ... and the working class's attempt to assert its autonomous interests' (Cleaver, 2000: 76; see also Lebowitz, 2003).

Differential access to the state

When I argue that social movements from above draw on the inherently differential access of social groups to the state, I am arguing that the state has 'unequal and asymmetrical effects on the ability of social forces to realise their interests through political action' (Jessop, 1982: 224). I am not arguing this on the basis of an assumption of the state as a subject in its own right, endowed with agentic capacities, but as 'a set of institutions that cannot, qua institutional ensemble, exercise power', and thus also as 'a complex social relation that reflects the changing balance of social forces in a determinate conjuncture' (ibid: 221). The state apparatus, then, with its array of administrative, managerial, distributional, coercive and ideological modalities, is not a neutral instrument. Rather, the fact that the state constitutes an institutional congealment of a wider matrix of power-laden social relations entails that 'the structures of political representation and state intervention' will tend to be biased towards the enablement of dominant social groups 'to realise specific effects in the course of state intervention' (ibid: 224).

This invariably warrants a comment on the notion of the capitalist state. State power can be conceived of as capitalist 'to the extent that it creates, maintains, or restores the conditions for capital accumulation' (Jessop, 1982: 221). State power contributes to accumulation by guaranteeing 'private property rights in the means of production and labour power, the enforcement of contracts, the protection of the mechanisms for accumulation, the elimination of barriers to mobility of capital and labour and the stabilization of the money system' (Harvey, 2001: 274)--thus reproducing and stabilising capitalist relations of production and capital accumulation. Beyond the maintenance and reproduction of the social relations that sustains the capitalist mode of production, there is also the issue of state intervention in the process of accumulation itself, as well as the provision of public goods and the social/physical infrastructure necessary for the reproduction of capital and labour, and in terms of crisis management (ibid: 274-5). Moreover, the state plays a crucial role in mediating between factions of capital, particularly during periods in which factional struggles threaten the reproduction of the capitalist system (ibid: 275).

Now, having said that the state and state power are congealments of a wider matrix of power-laden social relations it is also necessary to recognise the consequences of the fact that this matrix is not static for the suggested understanding of state power. This entails that a given state formation is not a monolithic vehicle for the execution of the designs of dominant social groups. Indeed, the structures of political representation and state intervention are subject to change as an outcome of movement struggles. In terms of representation, this is evident in the enfranchisement of women as a consequence of the struggles of the early women's movement and the enfranchisement of blacks in the US South and South Africa as a result of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. In terms of state intervention, it is arguably most evident in the emergence of what Jessop (2003) calls 'the Keynesian Welfare National State' that emerged as a consequence of labour struggles from the 1890s to the 1940s (see Silver, 2003; Halperin, 2004). Thus, the argument that social movements from above draw on the privileged access of dominant social groups to the state apparatus must not be conflated to a crude unilateral wielding of state power. State power, rather, 'must be seen in conjunctural, relational terms rather than as a fixed sum of resources which can be appropriated by one social force to the exclusion of others' (Jessop, 1982: 225).

Moulding everyday routines and common sense

When I argue that social movements from above draw on the leading position occupied by dominant social groups in the moulding of everyday routines and common sense, I am of course venturing into the terrain of Gramsci's concept of hegemony. Gramsci (1998: 57, 12) asserted that 'the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways', namely 'the function of hegemony which the dominant group exercises throughout society and ... that of "direct domination" or command exercised through the State and "juridical" government'. In Gramsci's work, 'social hegemony' is defined as '[t]he "spontaneous" consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group' (ibid: 12). Such consent, he argues, entails the acceptance of representations of the direction that dominant groups impose upon social life as being in the universal interest of society at large: 'the development and expansion of the particular group are conceived of, and presented, as being the motor force of a universal expansion, of a development of all the "national" energies' (ibid: 182).

The ability to achieve such consent derives partly from the capacity of dominant social groups to promulgate ideologies of dominance through a variety of channels. An ideology of dominance can be thought of as a cognitive horizon or system of beliefs in which an existing social order is represented as natural and purposive, and therefore legitimate. At the heart of such a cognitive horizon or belief system lies 'the belief about everything that exists, that it is "natural", that it should exist, and that however badly one's attempt at reform may go they will not stop life going on, since the traditional forces will continue to operate and precisely will keep life going on' (Gramsci, 1998: 157).

However, hegemony also entails something more thoroughgoing than merely the 'acceptance' of an ideology of dominance. As Williams (1977: 110) points out, hegemony revolves around 'the relations of domination and subordination, in their forms as practical consciousness, as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living ... of the whole substance of lived identities and relationships'--that is, hegemony extends beyond the ideational and into the practical organisation of everyday routines. It is in this sense that social movements from above assume a leading position in relation to the moulding of everyday routines and common sense: hegemony as practical consciousness enables a dominant group 'to manage the task of providing effective directions and orientations to the life-activity of different social groups, meet at least some of their diverse needs and provide a language with which they can express their thoughts' (Cox, 1999: 104).

Still, hegemony has its limits. If we look closer at Gramsci's (1998: 333) conception of 'common sense', we quickly discover that its 'contents' are not exhausted by hegemonic impositions; rather, it is a 'contradictory consciousness' that fuses ideologies of dominance and hegemonic ways of being in the world with the practical and often tacit subaltern experience of the existent as somehow problematic, and the subaltern skills and responses that are developed in response to this experience (see Thompson, 1993: 86-7). Consequently, hegemony, as Williams (1977: 112) puts it, 'can never be singular ... [and] it does not just passively exist as a form of dominance'. Given its non-singular form, hegemony is vulnerable to resistance, limitations, alterations and challenges, and thus 'has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified' (ibid: 112). Hence, when we study how social movements from above draw on this leading position in relation to the moulding of everyday routines and common sense, we do wisely to study this 'not as a finished and monolithic ideological formation but as a problematic, contested, political process of struggle' (Roseberry, 1995: 77).

The strategies of social movements from above

When social movements from above mobilise economic, political and cultural resources in projects which seek to expand or maintain the hegemonic position of dominant social groups, they do so in relation to how their activity is impacted by and impacts upon movements from below. The character of this 'field of force' (Roseberry, 1995: 76) in turn has consequences for the strategies developed and implemented by movements from above.

As a point of departure, I propose a broad distinction between social movements from above that deploy largely defensive strategies, and social movements from above that deploy largely offensive strategies. The deployment of defensive strategies tends to occur in the context of considerable challenges from below, and such strategies can be of an accommodative or repressive character. A defensive strategy centred on accommodation typically revolves around the granting of concessions to the claims and demands put forward by social movements from below, with the aim of appeasing and defusing a social and political force that might pose a threat to the stability and reproduction of an extant social formation. The archetypical example would, of course, be the reforms implemented throughout much of Western Europe in the mid-twentieth century as a response to a worker's movement that was increasingly becoming an anti-systemic force to be reckoned with (Silver, 2003; Halperin, 2004). A defensive strategy centred on repression revolves around the countering of movements from below through violent coercion and the suspension of civil rights. A typical example of such a strategy would be the state terrorism that authoritarian regimes in Latin America unleashed upon democracy campaigns and other radical popular movements in the 1970s and 1980s as part and parcel of the implementation of neoliberal economic policies (see Klein, 2007). More recently, there is also the trend towards an arguably more subtle and molecular curbing of civil liberties through so-called 'anti-terrorist' legislation that allows for more extensive policing of dissent and general surveillance of everyday life (Gill, 2003a: ch. 9). Repressive strategies can of course also be of a more 'proactive' character, seeking to quell counter-cultures perceived as potential loci of large-scale protest. The passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in the UK in 1994 constitutes an example of a repressive strategy that, albeit less violent, still provided the means by which subcultures such as New Age travelling, squatting and the rave scene could be suppressed under the law (McKay, 1996: ch. 6). Accommodative and repressive projects are not to be conceived of as being mutually exclusively strategies. Defensive social movements from above rarely rely on either accommodation or repression, but tend to differ in terms of how they respond to substantial movements from below and their various segments, as well as different subaltern social groups. An example of this would of course be the differentiated approach to labour in the construction of the historical bloc which underpinned the postwar class compromise, in which moderate unions and skilled workers were incorporated, whereas more militant unions and unskilled workers were to a far greater extent excluded and subject to repression (Cox, 1988).

The deployment of offensive strategies typically centres on the launching of attacks on the truce lines left by movement struggles of the past through the undermining and reversal of victories won and concessions gained by movements from below. Offensive strategies thus take aim at either the attainment of hegemony for new dominant social groups, or the extension or restoration of the power of extant dominant social groups, and tend to be deployed at conjunctures where an extant social formation--in whole or in part--enters into crisis and starts to show signs of breakdown. An example of an offensive social movement from above that brings new dominant social groups to a position of hegemony would be the bourgeois revolutions that heralded the rise of capitalism in England, France and the USA. The signal feature of such movements from above and the revolutions they animated was 'the development of a group in society with an independent economic base, which attacks obstacles to a democratic version of capitalism that have been inherited from the past' (Moore, 1991: XXI). (4) Neoliberalism is, of course, the most recent example of an offensive movement from above that seeks to restore and extend the hegemony of extant dominant social groups. As Harvey (2005) has argued, the prime achievement of neoliberal restructuring has been to restore the class power of capital by fundamentally undermining the social restrictions and regulations imposed upon capitalist accumulation as a result of working-class struggles in the first half of the twentieth century. In other cases yet again, social movements from above may be characterised by the dynamics of a 'passive revolution' (Gramsci, 1998) in which the rule of capital is introduced in a molecular manner by an alliance between extant and new dominant social groups via the state without directly dislodging extant dominant groups and the social relations upon which their hegemony has been constructed. (5) These dynamics were characteristic, for example, of the articulation of India's postcolonial development project, and have also animated neoliberal restructuring in the Mexican and Chilean contexts (Chatterjee, 1986, 1993; Kaviraj, 1997; Morton, 2007a; Motta, 2008). The complexities of these cases only points out the necessity of treating the categories suggested here as heuristic tools in empirical and historical research, rather than as watertight conceptual compartments.

Social movements from below

I now turn to the collective action of subaltern social groups social movements from below. A social movement from below can be defined as the organisation of multiple forms of locally generated skilled activity around a rationality expressed and organised by subaltern social groups, which aims either to challenge the constraints that a dominant structure of needs and capacities impose upon the development of new needs and capacities, or to defend aspects of such a dominant structure that accommodate their specific needs and capacities.

The starting point for the theorisation of social movements from below is the simple but important insight that subaltern groups 'experience deprivation and oppression within a concrete setting, not as the end result of large and abstract processes ... it is the daily experience of people that shapes their grievances, establishes the measure of their demands, and points out the targets of their anger' (Piven & Cloward, 1977: 20-21). Yet those experiences do not merely constitute isolated instances or singular episodes of deprivation and oppression. Rather, they are 'clues to underlying structures and relationships which are not observable other than through the particular phenomena or events that they produce' (Wainwright, 1994: 7). Furthermore, these structures and relationships can come within the cognitive reach of movements from below and their participants if they combine and extend their 'fragmented knowledge' in ways that enable them to develop 'a better understanding of the social mechanisms at work, so as to direct their efforts in order that their intentions might be more efficiently fulfilled' (ibid: 108; see also Kilgore, 1999; Barker & Cox, 2002). This, in turn, means that the character of the grievances, the demands, and the targets of the anger of social movements from below may change in an expansive way from forms of oppositional collective action that are bounded in scope and aims to a specific, situated and local experience towards more encompassing and radical counter-hegemonic projects in which situated struggles 'shift gears, transcend particularities, and arrive at some conception of a universal alternative to that social system which is the source of their difficulties' (Harvey, 2000: 241; see also Cox, 1998).

I shall refer to the realisation of this potentiality as a movement process, and propose the concepts local rationality, militant particularism, campaign and social movement project as tools with which to make sense of different facets and phases of movement processes. I am of course perfectly aware that the idea of a movement process centred on the widening and deepening of the scope of collective action from below can have a suspiciously linear and teleological ring to it. Hence I would like to point out that the notion of an expansive movement process and the categories suggested in order to grasp the various sequences of such a process are to be thought of as heuristic categories, devised in order to grasp what can be considered as a contingent potentiality for the development of collective skilled activity by subaltern social groups, rather than a foregone conclusion or a necessary trajectory.

Local rationalities and militant particularisms

In order to grapple with the experiential rationality that guides people's everyday activity, I propose that we return to Gramsci's conception of 'common sense'. As I argued above, 'common sense' is essentially an amalgamation of the established ways of doing things and their rationale, which constitute the molecular workings of the hegemonic projects of movements from above, and the practical and often tacit experience of those molecular workings as somehow problematic and the various forms of practice developed and geared towards countering frustrations with the everyday status quo. Now, these latter elements can be conceived of in terms of Gramsci's (1998: 327) notion of 'good sense'--that is, the more or less submerged aspects of subaltern consciousness that indicate 'that the social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world'. For Gramsci, 'good sense' constitutes 'the healthy nucleus that exists in "common sense" ... which deserves to be made more unitary and coherent' (ibid: 328). Good sense, then, is that reservoir of practical consciousness that may serve as a basis for subaltern resistance.

I propose that we consider the nature and origins of good sense as a local rationality (Cox, 1999: III). A local rationality can be defined as 'a formal characteristic about the way people make sense of and engage with the world which is capable of being generalised and taking on a life of its own' (ibid-113). A local rationality is constituted by ways of being, doing and thinking that people develop as attempts to oppose the routines and received wisdoms that define the hegemonic elements of common sense. The development of such ways of being, doing and thinking can be thought of as either being rooted in the experience of infringements upon subaltern needs and capacities that are accommodated in a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities, or in an experience of constraints imposed upon the development of new needs and capacities. In the first case, local rationalities typically assume a defensive character in opposition to attempts from above to reorder extant structures so as to extend the power base of dominant groups--for example, the ways in which eighteenth-century food riots were mediated through local rationalities centred on the idea of a 'moral economy' that regulated relations between dominant and subaltern groups (Thompson, 1993). In the second case, local rationalities typically assume a more offensive character in which subaltern groups seek to carve out greater space for the satisfaction, deployment and development of emergent radical needs and capacities--for example, the urban counter-cultural movement networks analysed by Cox (1999), which seek to develop spaces for autonomous self-development. The precise character of local rationalities is of course to be ascertained through concrete empirical research. (6)

It needs to be emphasised that I do not conceive of local rationalities as being 'an essential characteristic of social being' (Moore, 1998: 352) articulated in hermetically sealed spaces of otherness and difference. (7) Subalterneity and the ways of being, doing and thinking that define it are 'forged relationally and historically' (ibid: 352) in conflictual and contradictory fields of force (Hall, 1983b). This in turn entails that local rationalities can be more or less developed and articulated in the collective skilled activity of subaltern social groups against those forms of rationality that characterise the hegemonic projects of movements from above. In highly repressive contexts, for example, they might exist as what James Scott (1990: xii) calls 'hidden transcripts'--as 'a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant' and concealed under a veil of feigned compliance and deference. In other cases, they might exist much more openly and thoroughly as a cultural fabric that saturates the outlook and activity of subaltern groups as overt and entrenched 'cultures of resistance' (Peluso, 1992: 12). A crucial aspect of the study of local rationalities is thus the unearthing not just of their content, but also of the form of its articulation and development.

At times, a local rationality may give rise to or serve as the basis for direct acts of confrontation with and defiance of social movements from above. This might happen when subaltern groups come to act 'as an organic totality' (Gramsci, 1998: 327) on the basis of the extraction and development of oppositional ways of being, doing and thinking in popular consciousness and culture, in which consciousness of being part of a particular hegemonic force emerges as 'the first stage towards a further progressive self-consciousness in which theory and practice will be one' (Gramsci, 1998: 333). I propose the term militant particularism for those forms of struggle that may emerge if such a process of extraction and development takes place. The concept 'militant particularism' was first coined by Raymond Williams (1989: 249), and has later been developed by David Harvey (1996, 2000) to refer to the particular origins of movement struggles. It refers to the way 'politics is always embedded in "ways of life" and "structures of feeling" peculiar to places and communities' (Harvey, 2000: 55; see also Harvey, 1996: ch. 1), and is hence characterised by this specificity and situatedness, both in terms of the issues that are struggled over and the practices, skills, idioms and imaginaries that are deployed in such confrontations. Militant particularisms can be defined as those forms of struggle that emerge when a subaltern group deploys specific skills and knowledges in open confrontation with a dominant group in a particular place and at a particular time in a particular conflict over a particular issue (see Cox & Nilsen, 2005). An example would be the wildcat strikes in an iron foundry in New Jersey, analysed by Rick Fantasia (1988), in which intra-group affinities between workers function as the energising force of a series of direct confrontations with plant management over specific workplace grievances, and eventually assume the form of an informal network among those workers inclined towards radical union activism.

The extraction and development of local rationalities and the concurrent eruption of militant particularist struggles can be a condensed and intense affair that takes place over a short period of time, or more long and drawn-out processes of confrontation, intervention, negotiation and persuasion between actors who see resistance as 'fertile' and those who see resistance as 'futile'. Furthermore, militant particularist struggles may occur as a singular event, several parallel but unconnected events, or indeed as a chain of events that lead to the formation of more institutionalised forms of local opposition. Again, the determinate form of militant-particularist struggles has to be discerned through concrete empirical investigation.

From militant particularisms to campaigns

In his discussion of the particularist origins of labour struggles, Williams (1989: 249) emphasised the practical possibility of transcending those particularist origins and building towards a more encompassing form of mobilisation in which 'particular struggles' are welded together in a 'general struggle'. Indeed, a fundamental aspect of militant particularisms is the fact that the practices, skills, idioms and imaginaries of which they are made up can be generalised and that through such generalisation they can transcend the particular locale in which they emerged and thus be applied across a spectrum of specific situations and singular struggles.

This is a process that occurs when activists involved in a militant particularist struggle in one given locale make connections with other activists engaged in similar struggles elsewhere. Through the making of such connections, activists typically discover and create common ground between them: 'common denominators' are discovered in the seemingly disparate conflicts in which they are engaged, common enemies are named, and common strategies and collective identities are developed across social and spatial boundaries. These practical activities of mutual learning and development of self-understanding, communication, cooperation and organisation between militant particularisms bring about a widening and deepening of the scope of collective action; and as such, they constitute the first steps in the process through which movements from below may 'shift gears' and 'transcend particularities' through what is essentially an act of '"translation" from the concrete to the abstract' (Harvey, 2000: 242).

The organisation of militant particularisms across social and spatial boundaries entails something more than putting potatoes into a sack. It entails the creation of a form of movement activity that I shall refer to as campaigns, which can be defined as the organisation of a range of local responses to specific situations in ways that connect people across these situations and around a generalised challenge to the construction of those situations (Cox, 1999: 109; Cox & Nilsen, 2005). An example of this would be the process through which the radical campaign against dam-building on the Narmada River in central India emerged, as grassroots groups working in peasant communities across the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh started to coordinate their efforts to secure compensation for the loss of land that these communities would suffer as a result of the submergence caused by the dam projects. Faced with recalcitrant state authorities, their demands were radicalised towards opposition to the Narmada dams at a pan-state level, spearheaded by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and the campaign was in turn embedded in national and transnational movement networks that articulated a generic politics of opposition to large dams, and championed the exploration of alternative methods of water management (Nilsen, 2009).

Towards social movement projects

As much as the development of campaigns revolves around a process in which the boundaries of militant particularisms are transcended through translation between and abstraction from local struggles, the construction of collective identities that cut across socio-spatial divides, and the widening of activist perceptions of the limits of the possible, they are still a circumscribed form of collective action in that they do not take aim at the social totality as an object of transformation. Campaigns, that is, are typically constructed as field-specific forms of collective action which do not necessarily or automatically relate a particular field of protest to a wider social totality.

However, if activists pursue the activity of connecting different localised struggles and indeed seemingly different struggles, if they engage in a critical interrogation of the structures that engender the problems they seek to address and that may frustrate their campaigns--that is, if activists pursue 'the process of abstraction from particular instances and circumstances' (Harvey, 2000: 241-2)--then they may also come to an understanding of the systemic dimensions of the specific field in which they operate. From this awareness, they may in turn start to move beyond the field-specificity of campaign politics and towards a form of movement activity which posits the social totality as the object of challenge and transformation. I propose the term social movement project for the conceptualisation of these forms of movement activity. Social movement projects can be defined as '(a) challenges to the social totality which (b) aim to control the self-production of society and (c) have or are developing the potential for the kind of hegemony--leading the skilled activity of different social groups--that would make (b) and hence (a) possible' (Cox, 1999: 102).

At the heart of the challenges that social movement projects level at the social totality lie emergent structures of radical needs and capacities, and the transformative potentialities of a movement project resides in the objective of fully instantiating and realising these structures. Militant particularisms and the local rationalities from which they derive, as well as the campaigns through which militant particularisms are transformed into generic challenges to the construction of a specific kind of situation, may well be expressive of the development of new and radical needs and capacities. However, what sets social movement projects apart from militant particularisms and campaigns is this: to the extent that the latter are expressive of an emergent structure of radical needs and capacities, they are oriented towards its partial instantiation and realisation through the modification of extant structures, whereas the former consciously, actively and explicitly seeks the transcendence of a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities and the constitution of altogether new forms of social organisation in which an emergent structure of radical needs and capacities can be fully instantiated and realised.

As an example, we might consider the 'alter-globalisation' movement that came to the world's attention with the 1999 WTO summit protests in Seattle. The movement is the outcome of a long process of communication between campaigns and militant particularist struggles organised through these campaigns, spanning much of the 1990s (Wilkin, 2000; Broad & Heckscher, 2003). Through this process, 'particular struggles came to be understood in terms of a more general set of interconnections between problems and movements worldwide' (Gill, 2000: 138). Slogans such as 'Another World is Possible' and 'We Live in a Society, Not an Economy' signal an insistence that ways of socially organising the satisfaction, deployment, and development of needs and capacities that are not defined by the logic of capitalist accumulation are within reach. This marks a clear rupture vis-a-vis the initial forms of protest to neoliberal restructuring, which were essentially defensive in character: strike waves in the North that sought to restore the Keynesian 'rights and entitlements threatened by neoliberal restructuring' (De Angelis, 2000: 14), and the IMF riots in the South, which sought to restore the social wage guaranteed in the developmentalist pact between the state and the popular classes (Walton & Seddon, 1994: 48-50). It also marks a rupture vis-a-vis many of the single-issue campaigns of the 1990s, which sought primarily to curtail the scope of the project of neoliberal restructuring, for instance the campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (Broad & Heckscher, 2003).

The trajectories of social movement projects are of course open and dependent upon such contingencies as the capacity to build potential for hegemony through the forging of ever-more and ever-stronger connections with localised struggles as well as its capacity for resilience in the face of opposition from social movements from above. However, a social movement project that has developed significant momentum can reasonably be expected to result in the development of an 'organic crisis' (Gramsci, 1998) and concurrently a revolutionary situation, a scenario that I elaborate further in the next section.

Social movements from above and below and struggles over historicity

Social movements from above and below engage in struggles over historicity--that is, they engage and encounter each other in struggles over the direction and form of the development of the social organisation of human needs and capacities. Such struggles occur when movements from below have returned 'up' the sequence from the opposition to routines in localised struggles from which they originate to opposing the structures from which these routines emerge, and--ultimately--the social movements from above that have sought to install these structures.

If and when movement projects from below have developed a capacity for hegemony that allows for the articulation of a challenge to the social totality and take aim at the control of the self-production of society, they can usefully be thought of in terms of what Katsiaficas (1987) has called 'world-historical movements'. The term refers to those social movement projects that throw up and animate '[p]eriods of crises and turmoil on a global scale that are 'relatively rare in history' (ibid: 6). He discerns 'a handful of such periods of global eruptions' and associates them with the years 1776-89, 1848, 1905, 1917, and 1968--moments at which 'new forms of power emerged in opposition to the established order, and new visions of the meaning of freedom were formulated in the actions of millions of people' (ibid: 6). At each of these conjunctures, and even when they failed to seize power, movements from below achieved substantial alterations in extant social orders.

World-historical movements and the processes of change to which they give rise can usefully be related to Gramsci's conception of 'organic crisis':

   In every country the process is different, although the content is
   the same. And the content is the crisis of the ruling class's
   hegemony, which occurs either because the ruling class has failed
   in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or
   forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses ... or because
   huge masses ... have passed suddenly from a state of political
   passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which
   taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a
   revolution. A 'crisis of authority' is spoken of." this is
   precisely the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the state.
   (1998: 210)

However, this description too easily slips into a portrait of revolutionary movements from below launching a war of manoeuvre against a beleaguered, passive, decaying order--an order that is at best, perhaps, capable of mustering a defensive response to the challenge from below. As Hall (1983a) notes, defensive responses on the part of dominant social groups will generally be insufficient in the context of an organic crisis--the reproduction of hegemony will hinge upon a 'formative' effort, or, in the terms suggested above, an offensive movement strategy from above.

Organic crises and their trajectory, then, must equally be considered as being shaped by offensive movements from above, i.e. movements that typically take aim at social structures that bear the imprint of the past victories of movements from below and the constraints that these impose upon the power of dominant groups. And such offensive movements from above may in turn spur defensive responses from below. Thus, an organic crisis should be conceived of as a complex field of force animated by 'a dialectic between reactionary and progressive forces in search of a solution, a new order' (Gill, 2003b: 33). At the heart of such a scenario lies the suspension of those 'truce lines' handed down from past rounds of movement struggles, and thus also the eruption of those antagonisms and contradictions which they held in check. New terrains of struggle open up in which movements from above and below vie for command over the direction of imminent systemic changes, or seek to prevent these changes from taking place in the first place.

Gramsci's (1998: 177-8) distinction between 'conjunctural' and 'organic' movements on the historical terrain goes some way towards capturing the patterning of the field of force between defensive and offensive movements from below in times of crisis, where the 'conjunctural movements' constitute those forces that seek to defend the status quo, whereas the 'organic movements' constitute those forces that 'give rise to socio-historical criticism'. Conjunctural movements can be thought of as being those defensive responses--from above and below--and, conversely, organic movements can be thought of as those offensive responses--from above and below--that emerge in times of crisis. I do not propose these categories in terms of sets of diametrical opposites, but rather as broad general categories that might be of use as we try to find our bearings, as we approach the empirical study of those periods in history that qualify as organic crisis. While organic crises are per definition radically contingent conjunctures, it is still reasonable to claim that as particular movements gradually gain hegemony through partial or total victories, the space of contention will be narrowed down through a dynamic of 'path dependency', where nascent social changes assume a certain direction that closes off or crowds out alternative possibilities. As a provisional guideline to such processes, we might posit the following general scenarios: a successful movement project from below will tend to result in some kind of revolutionary transformation; a social movement project from below that is 'disarmed' through an accommodative response from below will tend to lead to significant reformist modifications, while the basal structures of the social formation 'return to normalcy', at least for a time; and a successful offensive social movement from above will lead to significant modifications, but this time in favour dominant social groups in the form of the reversal of restraints upon their power.

Concluding remarks

In these notes, I have sought to make an initial move towards unearthing some of the potential that Marxism holds as a theory from, for and of social movements. I started by anchoring this groundwork in the philosophical anthropology that lies at the heart of historical materialism--namely, a concept of human species-being which posits praxis as the basic ontological entity, and indeed as the very substance of historical change and development. I then proceeded to outline a conceptual framework for engaging with social movements on the basis of this understanding of the essence of historical materialism, and its major features are as follows.

Social movements can be defined as being the organisation of multiple forms of materially grounded and locally generated skilled activity around a rationality expressed and organised by (would-be) hegemonic actors, and against the hegemonic projects articulated by other such actors to change or maintain a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities and the social formation in which it inheres, in part or in whole. At the heart of this definition lies a conception of praxis as the subject and object of social movement activity, and the theory that flows from it is one chiefly concerned with the direction, form and meaning of social movement activity in relation to the making and unmaking of social structures.

I proceeded to elaborate a concept of social movements from above that seeks to grapple with the collective action of dominant social groups, and the way this collective action aims at the maintenance or modification of a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities in ways that reproduce and/or extend the power of those groups and its hegemonic position within a given social formation. I argued that movements from above draw on the directive position of dominant social groups in economic organisation, the advantages that stem from differential access to the state, and a leading position in relation to the moulding of everyday routines and common sense, and that their strategies can be either defensive or offensive in relation to social movements from below.

I then outlined an developmental conception of how social movements from below seek to challenge the constraints that a dominant structure of needs and capacities impose upon the articulation of new needs and capacities, or to defend aspects of such a dominant structure that accommodate their specific needs and capacities. I argued for an understanding of movement processes that start from specific experiences in concrete lifeworlds, and which may proceed towards more encompassing forms of movement activity that seek to challenge the social totality as such. Movement processes are animated by praxis through which a fuller understanding of social structure and historical process are developed. Finally, I brought this together in a discussion of movements from above and below and the dynamics of organic crisis. I argued for a conception of organic crises as a complex field of force where defensive and offensive forms of movement activity flourish as opposing social forces seek to win hegemony over the imminent changes in the social organisation of needs and capacities.

I conclude by stressing that this is groundwork: much remains to he done in order to more fully develop the theoretical perspective suggested in these notes, and I can only hope that these notes go some way to provoking the debate and argument necessary for the fuller development of a Marxist theory of social movements, capable of open-ended and constructive engagement with those subaltern forces which, at a conjuncture characterised by ever more aggressive movements from above, seek to become 'the authors and the actors of their own drama'.


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(1) See Worth and Kuehling (2004) for a similar and interesting critique of the lack of sensitivity to the cultural dimensions of resistance in international political economy, with reference to the alter-globalisation movement, in a special issue of Capital & Class on 'Creative Industries: Production, Consumption and Resistance'. See also, in the same issue of Capital & Class, Barnard (2004) for an article on the Situationist International that brings out the importance of cultural politics in resistance.

(2) See Scott (1990), Boggs (1995) and Wilde (1991) for samples. See Calhoun (1993: 415) for a sober and appropriate appeal for the avoidance of absolute dichotomies between old and new forms of political agency in social-movement research.

(3) Touraine (1981: 1).

(4) Moore adds an important qualifier: 'The allies this bourgeois impetus has found, the enemies it has encountered, vary sharply from case to case' (ibid: xxi). See Hill (1980), Halperin (2004) and Davidson (2005a/b) for instructive discussions of the various problematics attached to the notion of bourgeois revolution.

(5) See Morton (2007a/b) for an extended discussion of passive revolution as a dynamic in the political economy of capitalism.

(6) Cox (1999: 111) developed local rationality as 'a provisional concept that identifies the kind of object that is being sought for: a heuristic concept that does not already impute a specific cultural form to its subject'.

(7) See e.g. the critiques of 'resistance studies' by Abu-Lughod (1990) and Ortner (1995). See also the critiques of the Subaltern Studies project by Sarkar (1997) and Moore (1998, 2000).


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