3. Postsocial Movements?
The decline of modern societies, together with the consequent decline of the particular stage of social thought we call sociology, leads us to a representation of social life as a flow of continuous changes. It means the triumph of modernization but at the same time the end of the idea of society. Large parts of what we call sociology, if this field of knowledge can be redefined as the study of social life instead of the study of society, corresponds to this purely dynamic view of social life. The modern theory of organizations, which is dominated by H. Simon's concept of limited rationality, is the most elaborate form of such neorationalism. According to this theory, actors do not behave according to their status in the system but according to their position in the process of change. In this approach, a word that has long been marginal in sociology all of a sudden takes on a central importance: that word is "strategy." Individual and collective actors do not act according to values and norms. Rather, like state, they act in strategic ways, trying to get the best possible results in a given process of change that is never completely controlled by a central authority. In a parallel way, Goffman or the ethnomethodologists represent social actors as states who use diplomacy and war in their dealings with other actors, and those other actors are more strangers than partners in a system of roles and role expectations. Social movements cannot appear in such a "Cold War" environment. Strategy does not require either affective mobilization or collective consciousness. It only requires the rational search for optimal solutions, and in particular the minimization of risks and uncertainty.
The importance of strategy does not recall the nineteenth century, whose political life was dominated by mass movements, but the eighteenth
century, because not ordinary people but powerful elites elaborate strategies. The members of these elites are highly individualistic and value their own pleasure. Such an individualism can go very far in criticizing the established order, social conventions, and moral rules, as far as the Marquis de Sade the legendary figure of Don Juan went. In our time, as in the eighteenth century, love affairs and perspectives on war appear to be more important than social problems and collective protests, which are still loosely organized and which do not represent any major threat to the institutional order. The social scene looks empty in comparison with the overfull theater of the nineteenth century, which was agitated by democratic campaigns, labor movements, and national movements. The contemporary period criticizes principles and methods of social integration and mechanisms of social control more actively than it organizes social conflicts and social movements. The traditions are more directly attacked that domination, and confidence in the future and its opportunities is stronger than criticism of power elites. The idea of postmodernity correctly describes this situation.
We are living in a period dominated by rapid social changes, a deep crisis of established values, and the initiatives of elite groups, who are able to elaborate complex strategies. Our time is also dominated by international problems: the permanent risk of a major crisis involving the two nuclear superpowers and the difficult birth of new national states, especially in the Middle East. Only an empty space exists between Freud and Khomeini. This space used to be occupied by Marx and the social and political thinkers who spoke for the labor and other social movements, both reformist and revolutionary. Social life seems to have lost all principles of unity. It is still possible to define democracy in such a social situation? It seems more appropriate to speak, on the one hand, of the permissiveness of mass society and, on the other hand, of a constant mobilization of the state in dangerous international crises. The state is no longer at the center of society but on its frontier. The unity of social life is limited to mass consumption. It is deprived of any capacity to impose obligations or sanctions but leaves individuals a free space for isolation, withdrawal, or exit. These images correspond especially to the European present because in the Europe the deep crisis of the national states limits nations to the role of members of a more-or-less common market and to an economic and cultural space in which extreme individualism and mass culture easily combine and cooperate in eliminating all kinds of active social and political participation. Intermediary bodies—parties, unions, churches—are weakened. In the gap between planetary and individual problems, it seems impossible to organize collective action. The concept of a good or fair society cannot be defined because the idea of society itself is disappearing. We seldom refer to social systems, institutions,
and power structures, but we very often refer to processes of change, their risks, and their positive aspects.
Let us accept once more the conclusion of the decline of the idea of society and its direct consequence: the decomposition of collective action aimed at the transformation of social, economic, political organization. But are we allowed to conclude from this waning of a long period of direct correspondence between the national state, socioeconomic organization, and cultural demands that no central principle of social organization can any longer exist and that no social movement, that is, collective action that aims at controlling central cultural resources and models, can be organized? This is the core problem. The notion of social movement is not important if it is used to name a heterogeneous set of protest actions and conflicts that try to modify particular aspects of social and political organization. However, the concept has a central place in sociological analysis if it introduces the hypothesis that there exists in a given society a central conflict—for example, for political liberties or workers' rights—and that this conflict is associated with the defense of central, social, and cultural values, for example, internal peace or economic development. For these reasons, the analysis of social movements cannot be separated from the question of the unity of the social situation in which they appear. In the past we defined this unity as a culture, then as a civilization, then as a political regime, then as the social relations of production, and finally as a socioeconomic system. Does this unity take a new form in contemporary industrialized societies or does it disappear, as I just discussed, to be replaced by boundless and loosely related changes? And what could this principle of unity be if it is no longer the community's rules of exchange, a civilization's collective creeds, the modern national state, or the capitalist system? In the past, modern societies have always provided an answer to this question, introducing a new principle of unity at the same time they were destroying an old principle. But perhaps the moment has come when there is only a nihilist answer to these questions. Is not present-day sociology smothered by the ruins of the idea of society and its concrete expression, the functionalist school?
The answer cannot be a novel one; it must come from the heart of the Western cultural tradition because it necessarily appeared along with the process of modernization itself. I earlier observed that when religion and the political principles of social integration were decaying, the concept of individual subject, that is, the production of individualization, took on an increasing importance. The subject, which Western tradition also refers to as the conscience, is not the expression of an absolute, a transcendence, or an individual existence. It is consciousness of the human capacity to create and transform its environment and culture. During the sixteenth century, modernization not only produced a new rationalism
and a rapid development of the natural sciences; it is also created, through the Reformation, a new moral individualism. With the development of bourgeois society, emphasis is put on personal feelings, morality and intimacy. Today, the subject is defined by its capacity and right to oppose political or cultural processes and to defend its freedom. The more we move away from religion and what Comte called the metaphysical era, the more the subject stops being transcendent and transforms itself into a principle of protest against the social and political order.
The idea of subject is both linked and opposed to the idea of individual. It is linked because it presupposes the loosening of communitarian bonds and even social roles; it is opposed because utilitarianism leads to a deterministic view of human behavior, which is supposed to be led by self-interest. On the contrary, the defense of personal freedom and, more especially, of the capacity for each individual to choose and control his individual life creates a constant tension between the logic of social integration and the reference to human rights.
The individual subject can be the principle of collective action only when two conditions are met. The first is that the defense of the subject must no be just a call for identity; rather, it should be a force of opposition to the dominations exerted on the person's language, tastes, values, and projects. Such a defense becomes much more important today than it was in the past because the industrialized production and diffusion of cultural goods are growing rapidly in importance. The second condition is that the individual cannot represent himself as a subject if he does not recognize other individuals as subjects. This idea has assumed a more and more central place in our culture; we call it "love." The individual becomes a subject through love and ceases to be a subject when he or she denies other individuals the right or the possibility to be subjects, as Levinas repeatedly pointed out.
The contrast with industrial society is striking. The liberation of individuals and societies was identified with the development of "production forces," and freedom was identified with modernization. In a postindustrial society—defined by the central role of "cultural" industries—freedom of the individual subject must be defended against mass production and mass consumption. The image of our society is dominated by this bipolar view, rationalization on one side, "subjectivation, that is, the recognition of the rights of the persons and groups," on the other, instead of the unified "progressive" view of modernity, which is so visible in theories of modernization. This transformation is probably more acutely felt in Europe that in North America because of the memory of the totalitarian regimes that destroyed European nineteenth-century optimism. Social movements no longer pretend to control and reorient the process of modernization; they oppose moral principles to "total" powers. These
new movements not only assert principles and aims; they also define themselves by their opposition to the social and cultural forces that dominate the production of symbolic goods. These movements consider such a conflict to be central to the new postindustrial society, which is organized around the production of symbolic or cultural services, such as the mass media, which shape our images of the world, medical care, which determines our perceptions of life, birth, reproduction, illness, and death, and to a certain extent of science and education.
Once again, let us compare the two opposite images of social life. What we have described on the one side is the image of diverse and continuous change that eliminates all principles of unity and integration of the social system and completely separates individual actors. These actors follow utilitarian strategies in the states that are more and more the makers of war and less and less the makers of the law. On the other side is the image of a social system organized around the production and diffusion of cultural goods and structured by conflicts between those who rule this production and those who resist the domination that is exerted on them not as citizens or workers but as persons.
These two images are not contradictory: they are both complementary and opposed. Democracy cannot exist if there is no exit from a central social conflict and if there is no external element that can mediate between conflicting interests. The liberal reference to social change and to the creation of new opportunities is the classical way of finding compromises between opposing class interests. An open geographical, technological, and economic frontier allows a society to negotiate the results of growth instead of being stifled by a paralyzing conflict. But if social conflicts must be complemented by an open political system, such a system, to be representative and democratic, needs to be based on the social conflicts.
Although complementary in some ways, these two images are nevertheless opposed to each other. The strategic approach to social life corresponds better to the interest of powerful categories, the conflict-oriented approach attracts those who feel dominated, and the idea of subject appeals more directly to intellectuals. But this apparent opposition is a limited one. First, the idea of the subject is not a purely abstract one in a society where the main social conflicts are organized around it. Second, utilitarianism is not to be found only among rich and powerful people in a mass-consumption society. Finally, social conflicts and the subject are concepts that cannot be separated from each other: the central social conflicts concern conflicting views about subject-building. Liberal utilitarianism, social movements, and the idea of the subject are as interrelated as opposed teams and the field on which they compete.
It is more useful to recognize that each of these three main themes can
take a relatively different importance according to the historical situation. Here we can use the Greek differentiation between periods and epochs, that is, between types of societies and processes of transition. Periods are historical ensembles organized around particular cultural orientations and social conflicts. Epochs are moments of rupture and transformation. During the epoch of transition, such as the Renaissance, individualism, the rejection of traditional rules, stronger competition, and the risk of war gain around. Do we live today in a new historical period or are we still in an epoch of rupture and transition? I believe that we are leaving such an epoch. What have been called new social movements during the 1970s and the early 1980s expressed in many cases this crisis of industrial values, the push toward a more permissive society, and a deep preoccupation with the risks of war. During the last decade the desocialization of society has been highly visible. This situation recalls the end of the nineteenth century when Durkheim was acutely sensitive to the decomposition of traditional forms of social control, and when Weber, going beyond his misgivings about the effects of modernization, was fascinated by the value-orientations of a modernized society.
There is another way of contrasting historical situations. Sometimes the subject becomes self-aware through achievement and "engagement." Other times, however, the subject becomes self-aware through struggling against reification, that is, disengaging, and freeing himself or herself from the world of objects. Thus an epic image of the subject is criticized by a romantic image of its process of self-production. The subject is never located in the middle of social life, as is the image of the prince or symbols of national unity; it is the common reference of conflicting social actors, both in their positive projects and in their attacks against what they consider to be dangerous for the subject. No particular actor can identify himself or herself with the subject.
I conclude that the hypermodernity of our society, because it destroys the possibility of a permanent order and the very idea of society, makes the formation of "proper" social movements impossible. But collective movements have not always been social; often, before developing in a political or economic arena, they had been religious. Conflicting social interests and cultural innovations expressed themselves in religious forms from the time of ancient societies to the European sixteenth century. In the same way, what we call social movements are becoming less specifically social. Their main objective is no longer to create an ideal society but to defend the freedom and creativity of the subject in a universe that appears to be dominated by money and pleasure, technology and war. Perhaps we are already living in a new historical period, in a postindustrial society. One of the arguments in favor of such a hypothesis
is the necessity to distinguish between two kinds of collective actions that are different from the social movements characteristic of industrial society: on one side are a new progress of individualism and a new fear of war and catastrophes; on the other side are the new social movements that challenge the control of cultural goods.