2. The End of Society
The main impact of the idea of modernization, in both its positivist and its liberal version, came from its assumption that all social structures and systems of social control are crumbling. Modern societies can no longer be
defined by principles, values, and norms but instead are defined by change, the triumph of instrumental rationality, and the destruction of all absolute principles. Positivists believed that these evolutionary changes would lead to a scientific society governed by political engineers. Liberals predicted that society would be transformed into a market in which all goods and services would be priced according to their utility.
But this confidence in reason and change could not exclude a deep-seated anxiety: how would it be possible to introduce order into change, that is, to maintain the unity of society, the continuity of law, and the possibility of education in a society that would be like a stream in whose waters one cannot step twice?
Beyond the diversity of its thinkers and schools, sociology is a general interpretation of modern society: its central purpose is to understand the interdependence of order and movement. We must be clear on what classical sociological thought was if we want to understand the importance and the novelty of neomodernist thought, which challenges the solutions that were elaborated by classical sociology during the period of Western industrialization. What we call classical sociology was actually a limited moment in the history of social thought, a moment from which we are probably departing, that was built around the central notion of society.
Modernity can be defined as a process of growing differentiation of economic, political, and cultural subsystems. But the concept of society gained a central importance during the long period that corresponded to a limited development of modernity, when economy, politics, and culture were still closely interrelated. In merchant societies, the state was intervening into economic life to protect roads and ports, to check weights and measures, and to ensure the reliability of currencies. European national states eliminated the power of feudal landlords, private wars, and all obstacles to the circulation of people and goods. They imposed the realm of law over their territories. Of course the state was not only a maker of laws and a judge. It was an absolute power and a maker of wars as well. But the idea of the national state and a direct correspondence between a nation and the state gained ground, first in England and France, then in Sweden. Finally, it triumphed with the American and French revolutions and the Rousseauian ideal of the people's sovereignty.
Before the Renaissance, social thought was the comparative history of civilizations, that is, religions. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries it became political philosophy. Society meant the polity for Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Tocqueville was more the last of these great political philosophers that the first sociologist. These political philosophers opposed the social to the nonsocial as order to chaos.
The idea of the national state as a unifying principle was then, at a
higher level of modernization, replaced by the idea of capitalism, because the central agent of social change was no longer the national state but the bourgeoisie. The concept of capitalism is not a purely economic one because it identifies the economic structure with the process of global change. This identification supposes the existence of strong links between "civil society" and the state, between economy and politics. The idea of society finally appeared as a combination of the national state and capitalism. Thus the idea of society, like the earlier idea of the national state, is an effort to link what the process of modernization tends to separate: economics activity, political and military power, and cultural values.
Durkheim among the great classical sociologists has the most anguished awareness of the decomposition of social order and of the necessity to give the idea of society a central role, both in sociological analysis and in the reconstruction of social order. Parsons, in contrast, was more optimistic and gave us a triumphal image of society. He identified society with rationality without sharing Weber's and Durkeim's preoccupation with the consequences of modernization.
The idea of society is to a large extent a myth. It tries to overcome the growing separation of the main elements of social life by introducing a central principle of social organization. This sociologism is criticized by those who observe that modern societies are built on power, exploitation. and was as much as on rationality, law, and science. I am not, however, directly interested in these well-known criticisms. My central preoccupation is with the consequences of contemporary hypermodernization, a development that appears to destroy all unifying myths that try to bring together individualistic culture, constantly changing economic activities, and a state that is more and more directly defined by its political, military, and economic competition with other state. The importance of the idea of society is that contemporary hypermodernization appears to destroy it, and it is doing so as rapidly as industrialization destroyed the idea of the national state and led to the notion of society.
The main characteristic of contemporary modern society is the extreme separation between the state and social life, a separation that can no longer be overcome by another unifying myth. This separation is felt very intensely in Europe, the continent where the first national states were created. The economies and cultures of European nations have become transnational; their citizens use a higher and higher proportion of foreign products and, even more important, they are subordinated to the nuclear superpowers. The separation between the state and social life was felt less intensely in the United States during the years immediately after World War II, which explains the broad influence of Parsons's sociology. But from the 1960s on, American citizens became conscious of
the separation between state and society. But unlike European countries, their own state had acquired imperial influence, had become a nuclear superpower, and thus could no longer be reduced to a political institution like congress or municipal bodies.
At the same time that military power and international strategy are separating themselves more and more from internal policies, mass consumption is overcoming the barriers of social and economic stratification. Although some sociologist maintain old-fashioned ideas in this area, socioeconomic status clearly has decreasing predictive power in explaining consumption patterns and political choices. Often it is more useful to consider upwardly or downwardly mobile groups or ethnic subcultures than socioeconomic strata in explaining social behavior.
These observations are sufficient to describe the analysis of those who believe in the waning of social movements. Their central idea is that social movements have existed only inasmuch as they were at the same time political movements. They believe that only action against state power gives unity and a central importance to protest movements, which otherwise tend to be diverse and limited. Peasant movements in seventeenth-century France became important only because they opposed state taxes in addition to the domination of the landlords. If it had not been unified by political action, especially by that of the socialist parties, whose main purpose was not to transform working conditions but to conquer political power, what we call the labor movement would have been only a series of limited protest movements. The predominant role of political action in the labor movements is demonstrated by the fact that socialist parties have played their most important role in countries where unions were relatively weak and where purely political problems were more central than social problems, for example, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and France. The idea of socialism as a global social movements has been more actively developed in these countries than in Great Britain or the United States. This observation leads many to conclude that a social movement is actually a mixture of social protest and political action. This mixture often leads to contradictions, as demonstrated in the Soviet Union during the first years after the revolution.
Following the logic of this analysis, if political action and social protest now tend to be more and more separated, social movements must disappear. Liberals, when they go beyond a superficial apology for technological progress and abundance, defend an idea that is as powerful as the ideas of progress and rationalization that were introduced by their predecessors. This idea is the triumph of individualism, that is, the separation between individual needs and aims and state problems. Individualism destroys not only the public space, from institutions to socialization agencies, but also the very possibility of social movements. On one side, liberals
say, we see the presence of individuals, with their sexuality and violence as well as their need for security and their efforts to climb up the social ladder. On the other side is the state, which is first of all a military power and which is often able to absorb social life and manipulate it, as in communist countries, or to identify itself with nationalist and religious forces, as in many Third World countries. Protest movements appear against the state. They range from the dissidents and the refuseniks in the Soviet Unions to the mass movement in the United States opposing the Vietnam war and include movements opposing the permanent threat of nuclear war. But these antistate movements cannot be identified as social movements.
This hyperliberal view is highly original and creative. It has been reinforced by the necessity to find a way out of structuralist pessimism. If social domination is complete, if the whole of social organization functions as a system of social control that maintains inequality, privileges, and power, if social movements are impossible and social actors illusory, and if nothing exists but integration, manipulation, expulsion, and stigmatization, then the only possible exit is individualism. This was Barthe's and Foucault's answer at the end of their lives and it is also the "California" answer. It is an aesthetism, the search for pleasure, friendship, and voluntary groups, and it is directly inspired by ancient Greece. According to this view, the real objective of the new social movements is to get rid of society, not to transform it. The new social movements are very far from the social movements that struggled for political freedom and social justice, that is, the social ideas corresponding to the unifying myth of the past. The new social movements recognize as their central value the autonomy of individuals and groups. They try to express this autonomy by withdrawal, sectarian behavior, or terrorism. No longer do social movements seek to control the main cultural resources and models of society through conflicts in which enemies are defined by a process of social domination. This liberal criticism of the so-called new social movements is much more interesting than the vague analysis that lumps various currents of opinions, revolts, social demands, innovations, and antistate campaigns together under this name.
The hyperliberal view is far removed from both nineteenth-century optimism and the ideology of classical sociology. This latter body of thought believed in the progressive triumph of civil society over the state and the churches and the parallel development of social and economic integration with social and political movements. This ideology has been particularly strong in the United States, where it is another version of the American dream: the effort to build a society that is at the same time economically dynamic, politically democratic, and socially open to organizational demands and protests. This is why classical sociology was more
influential in the United States that in Europe, especially between the two world wars and during the 1950s.
Before I consider the issue of the existence of new social movements, we must recognize as a partial conclusion that the image of a civil society in which opposite and complementary social movements conflict with each other while sharing the same confidence in the idea of progress is an illusion. This illusion, however, is still alive. It was directly present in Italian unionism between 1969 and 1975 and in the ideology of self-management that culminated in the LIP strike in France during this same period. These unionists sought to free their movement from the control of political parties and to create a society dominated by face-to-face conflicts and negotiations between management and workers. But we know today—and we should never have forgotten—that the state never can be reduced to the political expression of civil society and cultural demands cannot be identified with programs of social transformation.
Culture, society, and state power are more and more separated from each other. The consequence is that no social movement can bear in itself a model of an ideal society. Their actions are limited. Either the cultural and political unity of the national society is strong, which limits social conflicts and movements, as has generally been the case in the past, or this unity is weak or absent and nothing can integrate cultural demands, which are more and more individualized. The history of modernization is not the victory of the market and economic actors over states and churches but the decomposition of community, the growing separation of state economic activity, and personality problems. At the end of the decomposition of "society," defined as interrelated economic, cultural, and political systems that are integrated by institutions and socialization processes, it seems logical to announce the end of social movements, which are destroyed by the double triumph of individualism and state power and can no longer transform a society that has disappeared.
If we consider not only the most industrialized countries but also the rest of the world, the most important collective movements today are not social movements, such as socialism, communism, or unionism, which have been largely transformed into the ideological bases of state power, but rather the Islamic movement and, more broadly, the movements calling for identity, specificity and community that link cultural demands and state power and suppress, generally in a violent way, public space and social movements. The world appears divided into two parts: Western countries that are dynamic, individualistic, anomic, and deprived or freed from collective action, and Third World countries that are dominated by cultural or even religious nationalism. In between these two parts the communist world crushes both individual demands and collective
action; its use of the vocabulary of the labor movement only emphasizes communism's destruction.
In such a situation, is it not logical to consider that social movements take place only in historical settings in which principles of social integration and open social conflicts coexist? Without a principle of social integration based on a legitimate state, no central social movement can be created; without open social conflicts and a recognized plurality of interests, social movements are reduced to rebellions. Social movements were, according to this view, directly linked with societies integrated by unifying myths—of the national state or society—as well as with autonomous economics relations. We now observe their decomposition in countries where an absolute state tolerates no diversity and imposes its rule in the name of a communitarian destiny.