Identity and Social Movements

Michel Wieviorka

Sociologist, Centre for Sociological Analysis and Intervention, Paris

By way of introduction allow me to say that I am not a sociologist of values but a sociologist of action; I study action and not values, and I believe that both fields are completely respectable and, since we have chosen to locate ourselves in a framework of values, I have simply tried to enumerate some observations or ideas that can be harboured with respect to values with some ideas or observations that can be conveyed concerning action and, to put it more precisely, concerning social movements in the Western world at the present time.

I will commence with a brief exposition of my general argument, which will serve to summarise the general lines of this presentation. I would like to insist from the very outset on the context or, if you prefer, on some important changes that concern our region of Europe, but that without doubt also influence societies in other countries, with variations in each case, as one would expect; in this fashion I will be able to describe what I am inclined to call a mutation which commenced, in my opinion, in the late sixties, which leads to the judgement that these transformations, in some cases, have a lifespan of between 35 and 40 years. Secondly, I will try to show how we can read this mutation, which reveals very important things to us to the extent that reference is made to values, and to understand it as we study changes in social movements, because great differences exist between the social movements of the sixties and those of today. What has taken place in some societies in which all kinds of differences coexist? What has happened in the last 40 or so years?

I will focus on three points. Firstly, our societies are the children of the era of classic industrialism. Secondly, they are passing through a moment of grave institutional crisis. Thirdly, they maintain a relationship with culture, in the general sense of the term, and also with high culture. In our societies an extraordinary variation in the idea of culture has occurred which, by the way, makes the task of the anthropologists particularly interesting, because they have had to change their paradigm completely as well as the way they define culture. It is evident what has happened in terms of changes in relation to the social model. Although they are common knowledge, their importance is such in terms of everything else that, in spite of everything, we cannot ignore this question.

Until halfway through the seventies, a little earlier in some cases, a little later in others, it was possible to define the society of countries like France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany or Belgium as industrial, not in the sense that there were factories, workers, unions or bosses, but in that they were organised and structured around a fundamental conflict between the labour movement and those who provided work. This relationship was the centre of collective life and also formed the basis of political life; to be right- or left-wing was equivalent, in general terms, to feeling oneself more on the side of the labour movement or of the bosses.

This was also of great importance in intellectual life. I come from a country in which for twenty to twenty-five years the great intellectuals were Raymond Aron, on the one hand, and Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other. It also had a direct impact on associational life, and any type of associational conflict outside factories or workshops. We formed part of that universe and we fled from it. At the time we did so, we had to ask ourselves what the central values of the industrial era were. In that working environment, the world of workingclass consciousness, deferred satisfaction, thrift, the idea that what we do today will serve to effect change at some future date—that dawning of a brighter day, as the workers put it—was very important.

And, consequently, we assigned significant value to work and to effort. We had a scale of values that corresponded with a certain model of society. From halfway through the seventies, nonetheless, all that was decomposed, broken down by deindustrialisation, by exhaustion or by the crisis of Taylorism, that is to say, of a way of organising work, by the increasingly systematic elimination of unskilled labour from large industry. Briefly, all kinds of transformations took place that prevent us today from affirming that the proletariat are the salt of the earth and that conflict between workers and bosses is the centre of collective life. This does not mean to say that this has ceased to exist.

There are still strikes and conflicts, naturally, but they have forsaken the central place that they once occupied in our collective life. Hence the sensation that it is necessary to reformulate the ideas of right and left, the feeling that associational life is no longer relevant to that battle in particular, but perhaps to other problems. In summary, things have changed and, in most of our countries, in a catastrophic way, in that departing from the industrial age entailed massive phenomena of insecurity and social exclusion. Leaving to one side the discussions that could result with respect to these notions, I will limit myself to mentioning the words of a notable Frenchman, Denis Olivennes, who said the following with regard to unemployment in an article written for a foundation: “Before it became a problem,” he commented on the French experience of the sixties and the eighties, “unemployment was a solution.”

In other words, we chose to take leave of the industrial era via unemployment, and it is true that unemployment rates have risen to an astonishing degree, affecting entire regions and cities. In this case, between the consequences of this development, the increase in exclusion, unemployment or insecurity, we become aware that, for many, the problem no longer consists of being inferior, dominated, exploited in a relationship, or trapped in conflict with another social actor; the problem is that of being situated outside society, of ceasing to be subjugated in order to be rejected.While there are people who continue to belong to the system, others have been left outside. Hence, naturally, in certain sectors of collective life other values will develop, different from those which we praised when we trusted in work, in progress, in development, in industry.

That is how a culture develops strongly, accompanied thus by certain values relating to respect, recognition, the subject of honour, and so forth. At the same time, and as a result of increases in unemployment, there has been a very strong rise in a feeling of social injustice that could be summarised in reasoning such as the following: “I once formed part of society, but now they have expelled me or I run the risk of them doing so, and the same will happen to my children.” The second great change that has taken place in all European societies is the crisis of their institutions, their ability to intervene, their places and instances of socialisation, and the institutions that guarantee public order.

This crisis takes different forms from country to country. Nevertheless, it may be said that institutions with large staff numbers everywhere have entered into crisis. In France, the crisis experienced by workers in the state education sector has been spectacular. But the same could also be said with respect to the justice system or the police. Likewise, as soon as these institutions acquire a certain importance or have at their disposal a service of great value to the public, as has happened in the cases of the schools and the police, all attempts at modernisation face obstacles and a certain tension arises between the desire for institutional modernisation—the introduction of greater economic discipline and new working practices— and the employment culture already in existence, although no value judgments are to be drawn from this.

At the cusp of these problems we find what is not simply a staff or an organisational crisis but, fundamentally, a crisis of direction, of purpose. What use are state schools? What are the police’s real duties? What would justice be like if it functioned properly? What are public services? And the family? And religious institutions? All institutions have been the subject of more or less deep debates which differ so much from country to country that it would be ridiculous to mention the case of France on its own. In the climate of the seventies, nevertheless, the predominant current consisted primarily of neoliberal ideas of the “free us from the state, free us from institutions, free us from…, this is all antiquated” variety.

Not just that, but also perhaps the sensation that political systems no longer work as the location for the institutionalisation of collective life, or that they perform worse on each occasion, has led to popularity of the idea that the institutionalisation of conflicts and social problems is either no longer possible, or that it is less and less successful, thus establishing a new set of values: rejection, rupture, condemnation, suspicion or “I don’t want to know anything about any of this.” Let us continue with the French example.The last presidential and parliamentary elections demonstrated this with complete clarity: the level of abstention was considerable, and among the voters a notable proportion showed a preference for the extreme right and the extreme left, causing the traditional parties to lose, in the eyes of public opinion, their past greatness.

This is, then, a second type of change that concerns our institutions. What is most important in relation to that which occupies us is, nevertheless, culture. On this issue, it is necessary to emphasise three aspects that affect great cultural change. Firstly, the idea of nationhood. Various European societies have experienced the escalation of a very simple phenomenon: the weakening of the outward-looking dimension of the idea of nationhood and the reinforcement of its inward-looking dimension or valuation. In other words, the escalation of all phenomena that we can call nationalist, far right or national populist, this being the extent of the terminology used. Throughout Europe, or almost all Europe, we have witnessed the growth of these phenomena, which reveal the problems that the outward-looking phase of the idea of nation faces in the present world in receiving the valuation it deserves, given that completely the opposite happens to the inward-looking phase. It is possible to demonstrate the existence of a link between this latter success and the social changes mentioned above, and that the inward-looking idea of nationhood—nationalistic, chauvinist, xenophobic, and so on—goes hand in hand, in the eyes of some, with social crisis.

For others, however, it bears no relation to social collapse but to the difficulty of maintaining social solidarity with the poorest, the most underprivileged. For a third group, this inward-looking idea of a nation tallies with the idea that it is decidedly desirable to stay as far away as possible from the poorest, as we are warned by Belgium, with its Flemish Bloc, or by Italy, with the Northern League. What discourse is trumpeted by Northern League members? In general terms, that “We are the most modern and wealthy region of Italy, and we want to have nothing to do with the impoverished, corrupt, mafia-ridden, bureaucratic South. We want to separate ourselves from the poor.”

These phenomena, nationalistic in name or in nature, are connected to social problems. The second phenomenon that can be emphasised is the big surge that also began at the end of the sixties of any and all types of cultural particularism, various collective affirmations through which certain social actors request recognition within the public sphere: regionalisms, new religions, old religions undergoing transformation, movements tied to questions of gender or sexuality, as well as movements linked to chronic diseases, handicaps, and so forth. The affirmation of some of the disabled that “I would like my deficiency to be transformed into difference” is not devoid of interest. This heterogeneous wave of particularisms gives rise, firstly, to discussions that belong to the terrain of political philosophy. What should we do? What is good and what not in the face of all these cultural differences? I

t goes deeper than this, however, for we are confronted by a double threat to our societies which we will now discuss, discussion being perhaps the only way to reflect calmly on all these questions. The first and most apparent danger is communitarianism, identities that affirm and that proclaim: “We want to make our own law,” which immediately becomes a threat to all those individuals belonging to that group, who hurry to say: “Such-and-such an identity is a problem or an obstacle for me.”These contradictory affirmations contain the seeds of a possible confrontation between minority identities, or even between the majority identity—a nationalistic one, for example—and a certain minority identity.

The principal danger, evident to everyone, is the isolation of communities. Be that as it may, it would be unwise to underestimate the second risk, which we could call “the danger of abstract universalism”, that is to say, the absolute refusal to recognise cultural differences in the public sphere in the name of universal values, in the name of human rights, in name of the fact that we form part of highly individualistic societies. Minorities should not emerge into the public space demanding this, that or the other. This abstract universalism, that in France adopts a republican tone and takes other forms in other countries, is also a danger. The problem that our societies face—and this applies as much to the politicians in charge as to those in the opposition, as much to dominant groups as to minority ones—is how to reconcile universal values, which should not be rejected, with respect for cultural particularism, rather than opposing the two and being forced to choose. The third important phenomenon is the wave of modern individualism.

This is, as I understand it, a significant cultural reality and it is essential to emphasise two aspects.The idea of individualism contains, I believe, two problems rather than a single one. Firstly, each person wants to participate in modernity as an individual, wants to consume, to have access to the health service, to see his or her children go to school, and so on. Secondly, and this is not the same, each person wants to be able to constitute himself as an independent personal subject in his acts and existence. In other words, people want to consume and to generate themselves.

Let us add a small additional observation: modern individualism is not incompatible with an increase in collective identities; quite the opposite, because the continual increase in collective identities is caused by people choosing on an individual basis to join or adopt them. Let us provide another example: nowadays, a young immigrant from North Africa who finds himself in the Paris region and is asked “What do you mean when you say you’re a Muslim?” will no longer respond as he would have done half a century ago: “I am a Muslim because my parents are Muslim, my grandparents were Muslim, and so on.” Rather, he will say: “It is my choice, my personal right.” And, consequently, there will be a highly personal, highly subjective decision, an affirmation of the individual subject that will then be transcribed onto the collective identity. It is for this reason that it is unnecessary to oppose the increase in collective identities and in modern individualism; rather one should try to see them as complementary. With this picture in mind, we can see how social movements have, in roughly thirty or forty years, passed through three phases.

Those with a knowledge of sociology will be aware that the notion of a social movement is one much debated by sociologists, so I will not enter into that discussion. In view of the fact that I am student of Alain Touraine, I follow the idea that a social movement is not so much about rational and political conduct, as it is described by certain schools of sociology, but, above all, a rebellious action which aims at controlling the principal values of a society, a controversy that aspires to appropriate control of the most important values in collective life. This is a definition which met with some agreement on the part of the Italian sociologist, Lucci. Let us now show, exactly, these three different phases through which social movements passed.The sixties were the scene of ubiquitous encounters with a great social movement, the labour movement.

The seventies and eighties were a period to which Touraine and others referred as the epoch of social movements. We could say that, nowadays, we have entered a new epoch. Given the difficulties we have in baptising it, I will refer to it here as the epoch of new social movements. How can the labour movement of the sixties be understood as a point of departure? Firstly, what is its framework? Its framework is the nation-state. Naturally, we make use of that which is international, and international relations do indeed exist, but we conceive, we observe and we analyse the labour movement as a social movement in France, in Spain, perhaps in Catalonia, within the framework of the nation-state or of an idea that resembles it, following the mechanisms of study used by historians and sociologists. The second characteristic is that we are able to construct and to conceive this social movement of the sixties, the labour movement, in terms of relationships of domination. The worker defines himself by the domination that he suffers in the factory or the workshop.

Thirdly, if one is a sociologist or historian, apart from a number of important exceptions, the cultural dimensions of the action or the actor are not of particular interest; the actor defines himself socially and fits into a social relationship of exploitation or domination. Some British studies deny or diminish the importance of these theses. Anyone who knows the classic works of Petenson or Gerhart will be able to verify that these two historians are also interested in working class culture. As a whole, however, it is impossible to understand working class action if we take account of its culture. Fourthly, the labour movement to which I am referring is a social movement that maintains, however, close relationships with politics, although there are moments in which it is maintained that they do not have the slightest connection with political action.

The French usually mention the Charter of Amiens, the affirmation of trade unionism from the beginning of the twentieth century, in which the labour movement says: “We have nothing to do with political parties.” Yet as a whole the labour movement in our societies has been subordinated to a considerable degree to the political movements that appealed to it, to communist and also to social-democratic parties. We could add, even, that in certain cases the workers have been the great losers in this relationship. It is moving to read the works that describe how Lenin, returned to power by the Soviet revolution, liquidated in an extraordinarily brutal fashion everything in the union movement that smacked of non-conformism. Finally, and without moving away from the subject of values, the concluding characteristic of the labour movement such as I have defined it here is that the personal subject mobilised is a social subject, that the worker is defined through his consciousness, that is to say, working class consciousness.