1. Decline or Transformation of Social Movements?
Social movements cannot be identified with campaigns for institutional reforms. But they can be understood as countercultural or "alternative" forms of collective action or as a protest movements, directed against forms of social organization more than against cultural values. These two types of collective action—more "cultural" or more "social"—are present in the seventies and eighties. Both the future and the very nature of what I referred to some ten years ago as the "new social movements" appear to be uncertain. Those who study social movements have taken two views about the future of these movement. The first view sees the end of social movements inasmuch as they are defined as organized collective actions aimed at transforming the social order. According to these observers, our era is characterized by movements that depend on try to expand individual freedom and that oppose the state's power. The social and political space, in German, the "Öffentlichkeit," is becoming a no-man's-land between a more and more individualistic private life that expects society to be permissive and international relations that are dominated by the confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers and by the resistance of Islam and other communitarian movements to Westernization. Social movements, especially the most important one, the labor movement, are melting down because our democratic regimes are able to answer social demands with institutional reforms and because these social movements have often been transformed into instruments of power and repression rather than of protest.
The second view holds that we are living in a period of transition between the decline of the labor movement and the formation of new social movements that belong to postindustrial society. In this society,
industrialized production and the diffusion of symbolic and cultural goods take the central role that belongs to "productive forces" in industrial society. This period of transition is in many ways similar to the first half of the nineteenth century when social problems, such as poverty and proletarianization, were more visible than were the still fragmentary and repressed social movements.
These two interpretation appear to be entirely opposed to each other; they are not, however, mutually exclusive. Here again, a comparison with the nineteenth century is useful. For liberals, reason and interest were going to displace tradition and privilege. They believed that an open economy and a liberal society would permit a better use of material and human resources and enhance freedom of expression and the circulation of ideas. Such opinions were not rejected by those who identified industrialization with the development of a new economic domination and the class struggle. Marx spoke of the revolutionary action of the bourgeoisie, and most socialist thinkers believed as much in progress as they did in class struggle; they expected the development of productive forces to overcome, both naturally and through purposeful action, the domination of private interests.
These two analyses of social movements are challenges by the liberal-conservative view of a completely open, constantly changing society that no longer has any nature, essence, or center, a society that is nothing but a number of loosely connected changes. Critical sociologist, however, discover conflicts not only in production but in all aspects of social life and see new social movements that challenge social organization as a whole and propose alternative forms of social, economic, and cultural life.
These two images may seem to be so opposed as to be mutually exclusive. The social sciences are confronted with the opposition of these two interpretation of contemporary social changes. The optimistic liberal interpretation seems to be prevailing today or at least is more relevant in a period of new technological developments, milder economic difficulties, and the absence of a major crisis involving the two superpowers. For this reason, I consider the optimistic view first before examining the Idea of new social movements because the existence of such movements has always been depended only by a minority and attacked on one side by liberals and on the other by Marxist structuralists, who discern nothing but the logic of domination and the reproduction of social inequalities in social processes.