The Birth and Evolution of Social Movements

In recent turbulent times, the need for, and use of social protest movements has been seen on multiple occasions. We do not need to cast our minds back too far to recall the most significant contemporary movements, such as the rise of Momentum within the Labour Party, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which has also spread to the United Kingdom recently. What is perhaps most significantly common between both, is their use of social media, as well as the threat that mobilisation of thousands of activists could pose to authority. As a result, this provides an argument against the view held by many, that protests are an old tactic belonging to the 20th century. These two examples provide a new form of protesting against oppression or an injustice.

The main aim of this chapter of my blog is to view and analyse social movements that occurred between 1780 and 2003, specifically protests within London, as the category title suggests. Furthermore, an assessment of changes in tactics and organisation shall be discussed. Though my scope is the city of London, I will mention protests around the world within this blog, just as a point of reference and context, and also to show the evolution of movements, from being national, to now being international, in the twenty-first century.

Much of this discussion is thankfully enhanced by the work of Charles Tilly. He has provided a framework to analyse social movements. Tilly argues that one element that belongs to social movements, is the public display of W.U.N.C. The elements of W.U.N.C together, create an image of credibility and strength. Worthiness (W) aims to provide an image of credibility and maturity, through a sober demeanour, the elderly, and authority figures. Unity (U), can be shown through badges, banners, marching, and symbols. Numbers (N), show a physical presence, the potential to occupy space and sign petitions. Commitment (C), can be seen through sacrifice, resistance and dedication to the cause. These elements are vital for many reasons, but they are significant for the success of a movement, as they provide the façade of strength, unity, passion for the cause, and if performed successfully, could potentially convert the wider public to their aims.

It is important for historians to know the birth of the social movement as they can then analyse its growth, as well as the catalyst for its birth. The growth, or decline, of social movements reflects upon the political climate to an extent, as it shows the freedom or lack thereof, of democracy. Tilly argues that elements constituting a social movement emerged in the period between 1780 and 1830, growing specifically between 1812-1830. ‘From the eighteenth-century origins onward, social movements have proceeded not as solo performances, but as interactive campaigns…they consist of interactions between the temporarily connected’.

A common conception that springs to one’s mind when thinking of a social movement, is that all the actors must be politically active, and from the same socio-economic background, political opinion, and have the exact same grievances, hence their participation. However, the reality is that protests, especially the most effective ones, manage to unite a cross-section of society. This is a strength as it provides numbers and enhances the threat of mobilisation to authorities. It also provides a movement with a sense of legitimacy, as the numbers show their grievance is held by many. However, it also leads to significant weaknesses, as the larger the movement is, the more likely it is that there will be disagreements, resulting in a lack of unity. Referring back to Tilly’s words about the temporarily connected, other historians and theorists agree, such as Alan Scott, who writes that a social movement is a ‘collective actor constituted by individuals who understand themselves to have common interests and… a common identity’. Additionally, Mario Diani writes that a social movement constitutes ‘a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups, and/or organisations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict, on the basis of a shared collective identity’. Through these accounts, it is clear that social movements consist then, of a united force of actors, from a wide range of society, uniting to create a movement.

Building on the claims that a social movement is a mix of different sections of society, modern movements of the late twentieth century, and early twenty-first, have expanded this cooperation to a greater level. This can be seen through the use of technology. Tourraine writes that movements changed in the twentieth century, as activists showed a greater awareness regarding ‘society’s internal economic management and its international environment’. Furthermore, Tilly expands upon this, arguing that protestors now expand the scope of interactions in their movement, and aim to attract other members of the public. This is done through ‘actions that dramatize the conflict and attract the attention of mass media’.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, we can see that protests have taken on a new global approach. A European movement began named Jubilee 2000, called for the eradication of third world debt, and Pettifor writes that ‘the ability to cooperate and coordinate our campaigning was greatly enhanced by use of the internet.’ Another example is the Diarrhoea Control movement in Bangladesh, involving teachers, religious leaders, organizations, doctors, and the police. This movement attracted support from Costa Rica in 2002, again through the internet.

Through these examples, we can see the evolution of social movements. They have evolved from national protests, to international movements, enhanced by the use of technology. But, as this chapter of the blog is concerned with London, I will return to a British movement mentioned earlier; Momentum. This group has called for support for Jeremy Corbyn through pressurising Labour MPs and providing the threat of mobilisation in the event of an election. This is reminiscent of an event in Canada, in which Murray Dobbin (1999) called for a social movement in support of the New Democratic Party. His logic behind this call was that ‘senior bureaucrats…operate as a fifth column to sabotage progressive policies’, whenever a left-leaning party is elected to power. The aims of Momentum are almost identical, and this reveals that movements also take ideas, and tactics from around the world.

Social movements have truly evolved since the eighteenth century. Much is still owed to that era, such as the use of slogans, marches and numbers, but technology is being used in a way that enhances the reach of movements and creates a more powerful base, capable of achieving their aims.