“The Future of Social Movements” paper

I presented this paper at the conference of the International Social Theory Consortium in Chicago, May 19, 2018. It still needs some work.

The Future of Social Movements: When symbolism, rhetoric, and discourse are not enough; or social protest in a post-moral era

The question I’m trying to answer in this paper is, Why are Americans so polarized on political and social issues? My claim is that millions of Americans currently feel that they are part of a social movement, and a person who feels that they are part of an important social movement is very unlikely to compromise or seek common ground with those perceived as outside the movement. Social systems theory, as articulated by Niklas Luhmann and others, offers one explanation for why this is the case.

Luhmann identified five kinds of social system—interaction systems, organizations, functional systems, social movements, and global society itself. Even if these systems often overlap or have fuzzy boundaries, it’s useful to distinguish them for analytical purposes. I’ll focus this paper on social movements, but first I will very briefly describe the other kinds of social systems. I will describe them as I see them, not precisely as Luhmann described them. First, an interaction system is a fleeting, face-to-face, or perhaps technologically mediated communication experience, ideally between two participants but not more than four. Most of us collaboratively create numerous interactions systems every day. Next, an organization can be thought of as a decision-making machine, and every organization has a structure of decision-making roles. Human beings come and go as occupiers of a positions or jobs within organizations, but the organizational structure has an existence apart from those temporary occupants of the decision-making positions, just as the interaction system has an existence apart from the speakers. In order to contribute to an organizational decision, a person must have a recognized position in the organization, or in other words, be a member of the organization. The next kind of social system, the functional system, includes the economy, the law, politics, the mass media, science, education, art, healthcare, and maybe a couple of others. The power of these self-organizing, self-reproducing social systems sets global, post 18th-century society apart from earlier, geographically localized societies. Another kind of a social system is global society itself, which is described as the system of global communication.

The kind of social system I’m most interested in for present purposes is the social movement, which at first sight might be mistaken for an organization, but it differs from an organization in a number of ways: it doesn’t have formal membership or defined roles, people are not paid for their time, and people cannot be formally expelled from the movement. For one thing, members are not expelled because social movements have an infinite demand for members. Secondly, members cannot be formally excluded because these movements, unlike organizations, do not make decisions; a social movement does not generate decisions; it generates enthusiasm, motivation, or common purpose. As Luhmann put it,

If we were to understand protest movements as organizations (or as emerging organizations), they would display a long list of deficient characteristics: they are heterarchical not hierarchical, polycentric, structured as networks, and above all, they have no control over the process of their own change.

From this point on, I will focus on social movements, which Luhmann also called protest movements because they protest against something they see as a powerful institution or force that poses an imminent threat. I will take as my example the movement for gun-law reform.           Over the last several months, three massacres — at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, Nevada, a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and a high school in Parkland, Florida [and now a forth in Santa Fe, Texas]– have re-ignited debate across the country about gun control. And while there is has been modest increase in support for stricter gun control, particularly when it comes to assault weapons, the strong opposition to any change in gun laws has not wavered among Americans aligned with or sympathetic to the NRA. If anything, the NRA has further embraced assault weapons, in the name of freedom. This fact leads to me conclude that the NRA, which is an organization, is also behaving like social movement; it sees itself as a movement dedicated to an issue, namely freedom, that the general society no longer cares about. We tend to think of social movements as movements for a better, a more enlightened, or a more just society; however, there is no telos in social evolution, and social movements can move just as easily toward greater oppression and darkness.

A month after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a protest in the form of a National School Walkout occurred. That was followed up ten days later by the March for Our Lives. The walkout and the march were symbolic acts that gained the mass media’s attention, but the long-term efficacy of this kind of symbolism, along with the associated discourse, is uncertain. In other words, symbolism or symbolic action, as a kind of discourse, alone is not enough.

If on March 14 or some other day, millions of students had actually walked out of school and stayed out, the education system, one of the primary functional systems of society, would have been seriously shaken up. A symbolic walkout is easy enough to manage, suppress, or co-opt by the education system; even if the walkout happens, it’s not going to inconvenience the education system in any significant way. But if students walked out and stayed out until real gun-law reform happened, the education system could not function, and this dysfunction would inevitably destabilize other functional systems, such as the economy, politics, and the legal system.

Social movements fail when they cannot cause any social disruption; they must destabilize other systems; otherwise, they are hardly even noticed by those other systems. If they social movement is not noticed by society, it loses the power to reproduce its protest communication.

But if a real school walkout is too much to ask, another tactic is to work through the economy in the form targeted boycotts. Proponents of gun-law reform have tried truth, logic, emotion, and various kinds of rhetoric to change lawmakers’ hearts and minds. Now money, as the medium of the economy, must also be targeted. Thus, the gun-law reform movement has taken the indirect route of boycotting retailers of assault weapons as well as businesses associated with the NRA. Fortunately, the gun-law reform movement has a clear target in the NRA, along with politicians who take money from the NRA. This kind of clear target was lacking in the Occupy movement, and it appears to be lacking in movements such as Black Lives Matter. The social media-driven boycott has shown results. For instance, on February 28, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it was immediately ending its sales of military-style semi-automatic rifles and is requiring all customers to be older than 21 to buy a firearm at its stores. Additionally, the company no longer will sell high-capacity magazines. Walmart, which ended sales of modern sporting rifles such as AR-15s in 2015, announced that it is raising the minimum age for purchasing firearms and ammunition from 18 to 21. The company notes that it does not sell bump stocks, high-capacity magazines, and similar accessories. Additionally, many companies have cut ties with the NRA.

One thing social systems theory shows is that a comprehensive social revolution is highly improbable. I won’t say impossible, but it’s highly improbable—and this is due in part to functional differentiation. Luhmann has been called a pessimist and/or conservative on this account, but I don’t think this characterization is fair. Given the nature of operationally closed social systems, a revolution or near revolution might happen in one functional system without seriously destabilizing any other functional systems. For instance, the economy knows nothing of morality or ethics; the only form of information the economy can process is prices. In principle, anything can be bought or sold; therefore, the law, or legal system, must step in to declare things like human trafficking unlawful and stabilize normative expectations. For any behavior that the legal system does not code as legal or illegal and, therefore, does not notice, such as rude, cruel, or offensive behavior, organizations can step to create codes of conduct backed up by sanctions including expulsion from the organization. But the point is that in a functionally differentiated society, there is no almost no possibility for a universal consensus on values or morality. Thus, as long as there is no social consensus that things like food and shelter, healthcare, education, or a basic income are human rights, a comprehensive social revolution envisioned by progressives or radicals is unlikely.

With respect to this lack of consensus on values or morality, Luhmann asks,

what happens if generalized values can no longer be accommodated in differentiated society? If, although formulated and recognized, they are inadequately realized? It seems that social movements are in search of an answer to this problem, and that this answer takes the form of another paradox, finding expression in protest by society (and not just single actors or specific interests) against society.

To illustrate what I think Luhmann means when he says that generalized values may be formulated but not adequately realized, we might look at the generalized value that all children deserve a quality public education, but currently this is more a mission statement than a genuine priority that the United States is willing to get behind.

Klaus P. Japp draws the distinction between old and new social movements in this way:

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. (155)

In other words, new social movements must do without normative, consensus values on social justice. Contemporary society says that all children deserve a good education, adequate nutrition and health care, safe neighborhoods, and so on, but it doesn’t enact policies to that might demonstrate or realize these values.

Japp argues that social movements are able to ignore their own position within society, or the fact that they observe society from within society. A social movement forms itself by drawing a distinction between itself and society. But the social movement, like society in general, consists of communication rather than flesh and blood human beings, and the special kind of communication for the social movement is protest communication; yet it focuses its attention on its chosen issue rather than scrutinizing its own communication. This insight goes a long way toward explaining the rigidity often observed in the new social movements.

Communication, in general, must allow for the possibility of deception, lying, dishonesty, and so on. And disagreement and misunderstanding must be allowed because every utterance entails a surplus of meaning from which to choose. Dirk Baecker argues that tribal societies were formed precisely to deal with this problem. Tribal societies have rules and authorities to deal with misunderstanding, deception, and dishonesty in communication. The tribe acknowledging and is prepared for internal conflict. But a social movement, unlike a tribe or organization or political system, cannot afford to pay attention to dissent within the ranks; as a collective, it must remain focused on its issue.

According to Japp,

That communications are oriented toward this collective identity is guaranteed by [the distinction between protest and issue]. 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. (161)

In other words, from the perspective of the social movement, society’s communication is unfocused and undisciplined; society in general doesn’t have an urgent issue to organize itself around. It’s similar to the way some Marines talk about civilian society. And this lack of cohesion is what the social movement must guard itself against. For the new social movement,

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, dissent, or self-reflection” (Japp ).

To expand on this point, in its self-description, it is imperative that the social movement maintain its separation from society, and internal dissent or factionalism must be ignored. In other words, the social movement cannot engage in second-order observation of itself. It cannot reflect in any sustained way on its own communication; there can be no meta-communication on its own communication. The movement must remain an “innocent,” first-order observer of its social issue. As Japp puts it,

If there is any self-observation, it remains focused on expectations for membership. “Being part of” or being included 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 cause 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. (Japp 159)

 Shifting to second-order observation, or communicating about own communication, would produce “communication overload.” Thus, the other side of the two-side 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” (158).

If we agree at this point that crossing from the social movement to society is forbidden, the next question becomes, How do “the new social movements actually manage to prevent the crossing over from one side of the form . . .  to the other?” (Japp 157). It appears that there must be an injunction against systemic self-reflection. The protest movement cannot engage in debates or introspection about the merits of its own protest. There cannot be opposing parties, like a government and opposition, within a social movement. Adopting political communication, which involves compromise with an opposing party, “would immediately erode the collective ability to act. And it is precisely this ability that counts!” (158). In other words, the new social movement must see itself as an organic whole set in opposition to a society that, from the movement’s perspective, is either unaware of or doesn’t care about the movement’s issue. Japp argues that this accounts for the dogmatism observed in new social movements. Internal critics of the movement cannot be formally expelled because they don’t occupy any position; therefore, their options are to become passive, drift away, or become mere sympathizers or fellow travelers. The price the movement pays for the collectively readiness to act is a high degree of rigidity (Japp 159). This rigidity effectively rules out subtle distinctions or analysis of the movement’s protest communication. It also rules out compromise with society.

Is it true, though, that social movements do not engage in self-reflection? Members of social movement might report all sorts of conflict and infighting, as well as genuine self-reflection on the goals, strategies, or tactics of the movement. Are Japp and Luhmann applying a theory to something that they never actually experienced or researched? No, the point is that the participants in a social movement might engage in self-reflection and the movement might be riven with infighting; however, the system itself cannot afford to make this fact known outside of the movement; the internal tensions must be ignored (kept in the blind spot) in the actual protest communication.

Luhmann insists on the principle that social systems consist of communication and nothing but communication rather than flesh and blood human beings. Human beings are a necessary condition for the emergence and reproduction of social systems, but only the communication that emerges from social interactions is included in the social system. People come and go, but the system of communication—protest communication in this case—carries on, perhaps for generations, as in the feminist movement. Clearly there has been a great deal of self-reflection, including theory creation (and criticism and conflict among disparate feminist theories), within the feminist movement going back to the 1830s; indeed, we must speak in the plural of feminisms and feminist movements. But the protest communication as observed from without—that is, through second-order observation—must, in principle, be consistent. Society should not be allowed to observe the self-reflection, debates, or construction of meaning within the system because that would undermine the protest communication. Many social movements have failed because they could not control the internal conflicts. One example is the Black Power movement, which fell apart from the inside, thanks in large part to a concerted effort by the FBI. In sum, there may be plenty of self-reflection and compromise within the social movement, but the movement cannot afford to compromise with society.

This refusal to compromise is seen in social movements such as The Tea Party. The Tea Party does not believe in compromise outside of the movement, which means that it’s not a political party at all. Hard-core Trump supporters are very similar in this respect. If they can’t control the government, they want to wreck it. Compromise is portrayed as weakness, and compromisers are seen as weak.

To reiterate, if a social movement is observed from the outside as engaging in serious self-reflection, it loses the power to act because its power to act derives from its observed unity. So, if members or supporters of the NRA feel that they are part of a social movement—a movement to protect freedom itself—they are unlikely to look critically at the movement; the issue is too urgent for self-reflection. If you look at NRA website, you’ll see that its motto is “It’s not just about guns, it’s about freedom.” And the webpage for the NRA’s streaming TV channel, Freedom’s Safest Place, announces “COUNTER THE CORRUPT MEDIA, NRA SPEAKS FOR ME, Keep Freedom’s Safest Place on TV.” FOX News also continually targets “the dishonest, mainstream media.” However, as the most watched cable news network for the last sixteen years, how is Fox News not part of the mainstream media? Clearly, it is, but it wants to portray itself as an outsider. Both Fox News and the NRA are organizations, but the supporters and viewers, who are not in position to make organizational decisions, may consider themselves part of a social movement. These are cases where   organization and social movement seem to overlap.


A limited number of people are paid members of the organization, and then there is the far larger number of unpaid supporters and sympathizers, but even the paid organizational members may come see themselves as part of a social movement. This is how we get ugly spectacles such as when Fox News’s Laura Ingraham ridiculed David Hogg, an outspoken survivor of the of the Marjory Stoneman Douglass massacre. Ingraham ridiculed Hogg by writing, “David Hogg Rejected By Four Colleges To Which He Applied and whines about it.” This statement then sparked a boycott of the advertisers of Ingraham’s show. But Ingraham’s statement demonstrates how debased and bereft of self-reflection protest communication can become, as well as how socially and politically polarized Americans have become.

Conclusion . . .

References not complete


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