Tuesday 19 August 2014

Capitalism and Social Movement Theory

You don't have to be steeped in social theory to realise that the kind of society we live in is bound to have a huge impact on the things that happen in that society. And yet social movement scholarship these last 20 years has acted as if this law of sociological gravity does not apply. But when the theoretical perspective that consistently gives the weight of wider social relations due recognition is Marxism, you can understand why some scholars might prefer to fight shy of integrating capitalism into the analysis of movements. But it's not just a matter of political reticence. The kind of Marxism passed off as Marxism is mechanical, clunky, economically determinist and crudely reduces everything to narrow understandings of class. If that's Marxism then, how could it possibly make sense of social movements around women, race, sexuality, disability and nationality?

Well, in my opinion, it can. And so do social movement scholars Gabriel Holland and Jeff Goodwin. Given the history of social theory since the unlamented demise of the USSR, sometimes the basics of a Marxist approach need restating time and again. Their 'The Strange Disappearance of Capitalism from Social Movement Studies' article in the excellent (but ludicrously expensive) Marxism and Social Movements does just this. Here's a segment summing up why Marxian methodology is vital for getting to grips with all kinds of movements.
Capitalist institutions (factories, railroads, banks, and so on) or institutions that capitalists may come to control (such as legislatures, courts and police) are often the source or target of popular grievances, especially (but not only) during times of economic crisis; these institutions, moreover, shape collective identities and solidarities - not just class solidarities - in particular ways; they also distribute power and resources unevenly to different social classes and fractions of classes; they both facilitate and inhibit specific group alliances based on common or divergent interests; class divisions, furthermore, often penetrate and fracture political movements; and ideologies and cultural assumptions linked to capitalism powerfully shape movement strategies and demands. The effects of capitalism on collective action ... are both direct and indirect (that is, mediated by other processes) and are the result of both short- and long-term processes. 
Holland and Goodwin, in Barker et al (eds) 2013, p.85
Stated this way, it's common sense. For a case study on social movement history that operates with these principles, I recommend this book.


Anonymous said...

and what does the fact that this book is so ludicrously expensive say about the relation between new social movement theory and capitalism?

Chris said...

Thanks to the social movement called the internet the book will likely be freely available in the not too distant future!

Anonymous said...

ah yes. here's a little ditty i remember from my youth. to the tune of "money"

the best things in life are free
if you can steal them from the bourgeoisie

Laurence said...

Just to say - the expensive version was the hardback. The book is now available with Haymarket in paperback at a much more reasonable price. A lot of the chapters are also available free online.