Theorizing movements: dissipation, co-option, and revolution

During the Occupy Movement, I speculated that the movement would likely move in one of three directions. I based my premise on my observation of social movements in the context of history as well as the synergistic relationship between social conditions, social movements, and political consciousness. I have decided to revisit these reflections in light of recent occurrences.

Succinctly stated, movements for social change can move in three directions. First, they can dissipate due to insufficient momentum and political consciousness on the part of the movements’ actors and the masses. Poor social conditions coupled with certain forms of political consciousness are the fertilizer for movements. Where the movements’ goals fail to gain traction in the consciousness of the masses or where the requisite levels of critical consciousness are lacking, movements may decline with various degrees of rapidity.

Further, in contexts where reforms are sufficient to pacify a masses’ yearning for a better society, movements may cease to seem relevant. It should be noted that the perception of reform may be as effective as the actuality itself, at least in the short term. That is if the masses accept the viability of reform as a signifier of social progression, then the movement itself–given its oppositional nature–may fade into irrelevance. Hence reforms, as a process of signification, may effectively blunt the further progression of a movement. Of course, when such reforms prove illusory, there is always the possibility of new movements of opposition forming–which may be further animated by the conscious awareness of the failed reforms of the past.

Further, insufficient social consciousness, that is limitations in the political education of the masses and a movements’ core actors can also lead to its eventual dissipation.

Second, movements can be co-opted by the establishment. This typically takes the form of them merging with, being absorbed by, or having their core platform adopted by the dominant political parties or other structures of the mainstream political apparatus. This differs from dissipation in that the aims of the movement continue, albeit within the dominant system. Such co-option may be represented by a range of structures such as the appointment of movement leaders to key positions in the government or private foundations, the provisioning of funds to movement actors by the state or civil society, the creation of policy platforms based on movement objectives, as well as the creation of institutes focused on the development of movement aims in some form or another. Often the latter may entail connections to major universities, and with this the provisioning of monetary resources, social status, and–necessarily–a degree of legitimization by the existing system.

Of course, co-option may result in movement fragmentation, as certain movement actors opt to continue on a more independent basis, perhaps due to differing forms of political consciousness or a striving towards different end goals beyond those symbolized in the supposed gains afforded by co-option. In any event, this suggests that the progression of movements themselves may also be characterized by bifurcations.

Third, movements can also become more radical wherein they look beyond reform as the solution to the existing system.

Returning to the above formulation–social conditions and political consciousness, in addition to a rejection of the legitimacy and viability of the existing system is the conceptual basis for revolutionary movements. In fact, the difference between reformist and revolutionary movements is largely based on the latter factor, as those who have rejected the dominant order may be less inclined to hold out hope in its redemption. One additional critical element which serves to concretize revolutionary movements is a vision of a new future possibility–that is the movement is ultimately animated by its pursuance of a new society, one whose birth requires the dissolution of the present one.

The latter stage necessarily entails three sub-stages: proto-revolutionary, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. However, these will be discussed in another essay.

Of course, these three possibilities are predicated on the movements’ self-conscious evolution. They do not focus on a fourth possibility, destruction by the state–a common fate of many movements, though perhaps less common than the first or second. Also, given that all movements do not form for the sake of achieving revolution, it must be stated that many do form for short-term, limited objectives–thus making dissipation inevitable. Further, others may come into being with the express goal of moving the establishment in one direction or another. Though such reformist movements may engage in various forms of  “militant” performance including, among other things, vociferous rhetoric, such movements must never be confused with revolutionary movements–which posit the necessity of fundamental social change, not reform.

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