Klaus P. Japp on new social protest movements

Klaus P. Japp has a very nice chapter in Problems of Form. Below are my notes and comments.

He begins by distinguishing between old social movements and new social movements.

The old movements, such as the various labor movements, are tied to questions of normative law and to distribution issues. New social movements (those that developed after the welfare state, namely the ecology movement, the new women’s movement, the peace movements, “autonomous” youth protests, and alternative economic projects), on the other hand, have to manage without socially universal reference points for normative and distribution-related definitions of justice.

1999 English translation. Dirk Baecker, editor. Stanford University Press, p. 155

Following Luhmann, Japp argues that

(modern) societies tend to organize self-descriptions by way of, among other things, an internal boundary of reflection through protest communication. . . [The] form of protest–or more precisely, the form of the social movement’s protest–lies in the distinction between social movement and society. The movement’s other side is “Society,” which, however, remains latent since a strong self-reference leaving everything else underdetermined is characteristic of new social movements. . . . As was the case for the old movements, society as an object of reflection remains underdetermined for new social movements. Its place is taken by issues that are in a way extracted from the latency domain of society and that actualize the form of protest. 

p. 156

Because society is underdetermined, protest communication speaks of the opposition in vague terms, such as the system, the elite, the powers that be, Wall Street, the banks, the government, or the man. 

Contrary to common assumption,

the new social movements do not enact protest by starting from a contested issue. On the contrary, they first consolidate the “form of protest”–the collective readiness for opposition that can be shared by a community–and then  seek issues through which society can be criticized, that is, through which one side of the form of protest can be designated. Self-rationalizations then reverse this course in that they externalize internal reasons for the emergence of protest (protest communication) with the help of issues. One is then prompted by topical issues and does not recognize the triggering function of a predisposition for protest. (156)

Japp differentiates between two levels of distinction: social movement/society and protest/issue. The second distinction allows the protest movement to ignore its own position within society, or that it observes society from within society. Such observation is taken to be noncontingent; that is to say, the protest movement is not just another organization within society with its own biased agenda, such as the Chamber of Commerce. This explains the dogmatism of the new protest movements.

In its self-description, it is imperative that the movement maintain a separation from society. Any hint that “society might not be so bad after all,” or that the movement might not have absolutely clean hands, is potentially destructive to the movement’s autopoiesis. In other words, the movement cannot engage in second-order observation of itself. It cannot reflect on its own motives or possible complicity in social injustice. The movement must maintain an “innocent,” first-order observation stance. Moving into second-order observation could result in “communication overload.” Thus, the other side of the form must remain

an unmarked state that blocks the crossing. Observation is thus restricted to first-order observation on one side of the form only in order to keep the operation of opposition closed.

p. 158

The question of why the form cannot be crossed is fairly clear. Thus, the issue becomes

how the new social movements actually manage to prevent the crossing over from one side of the form (which we define briefly as communication of opposition) to the other. (157)

The protest movement cannot engage in pro/con debates or introspection about the merits of its protest. That kind of communication is for politics, not social protest movements. Adopting political communication, which involves compromise, “would immediately erode the collective ability to act. And it is precisely this ability that counts!” (158).

This lack of willingness to compromise is seen in movements such as The Tea Party, which arose in opposition to everything associated with President Obama. The Tea Party does not believe in compromise, which means that it’s not a political party at all. Hard core Donald Trump supporters are very similar in this respect. If they can’t control the government, they want to wreck it.

Japp argues that

the new social movements enforce communication limitation by emphasizing what is expected of the membership whenever the injunction against reflection . . . appears to be threatened. The distinction between pro and con is “controlled”by the distinction between “being part of” and “not being part of.” Recursive use of this expectation constitutes and consolidates the system, and its communicative form is established by way of a rigid distinction between “being pro” (which is oneself) and “being con”(which is society and its contested issues).

p. 158

The idea is to

make the crossing of the boundary so arduous that few will attempt it. Anyone whose opinion differs from that expected of true members of the movement either just stays away or reduces himself to a mere sympathizer. (158)

If there is any self-observation, it remains focused on expectations for membership. “Being part of”is the marked side of the distinction. This leads to the conjecture

that members are not “expelled” but rather “stay away,” with the result being that a ranking of “hard core” members, fellow travelers, and those merely sympathetic to the course develops. .. .

The new social movements are therefore social systems that condition the crossing over from one side of the central distinction to the other in such a way that crossing becomes unlikely; the price they pay for their collective ability to act is a high degree of rigidity.

p. 159

By the way, the above description fits religious fundamentalism as well as what we think of social protest movements. In a sense, fundamentalist religions are protesting against modernity. These movements forge a collective identify that may compensate for the individualism (and associated anxiety) created by modern functional differentiation.

That communications are oriented toward this collective identity is guaranteed by another distinction. . . On the one hand, there is the self-reference of the system manifesting itself in a mode of communication that binds participants together in solidarity, or to use stronger terms, there is a demand for unity inherent in the expectations placed upon members. On the other hand, and in sharp contrast to the former, there is society’s communication, which is portrayed by the movement as lacking cohesion and therefore dangerous.

Orientation toward disaster (e.g., climate change, nuclear war, loss of biodiversity, massive starvation, genocide, Armageddon) makes protest communication so urgent that it cannot be watered down by intra-system debate or dissent. The movement must present a united front. Any disagreement about the movement’s motives or tactics would be considered trivial, mere quibbling, next to the prospect of global disaster. So rather than express dissent, unhappy members will just stay away or become mere sympathizers, as mentioned above.


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