New Social Movements: Do they defend poor people’s interests? 


On responding to the above question, I first need to make a clear distinction between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ social movements (NSMs). New Social Movements, in the words of Hallsworth (1994), ‘pose new challenges to the established, cultural, economic and political orders’. They are purposeful, organised groups determined to work toward a common objective. Their primary aims are to create and/or resist change as well as provide a political voice to those otherwise disenfranchised. Therefore, this means that they do not primarily focus on specific groups within a society but rather are issue-based movements. Whoever shares the same plight or suffering and are marginalised, may cooperate and take action together by challenging the issues that are desperately affecting their lives.

However, such groups are different from the traditional political organisations or interest groups (Old Social Movements ‘OSMs’) in that they ignore the usual formal structures of OSMs, and prefer for more informal communications. This means that people of all works, regardless of their economic status, gender, class, etc., will have the same access and equal voice. Although this does not mean to challenge the very existence of the political parties, nonetheless, their primary motives are to put forward their mistrust in the political structures or institutions, the business community and the people in power by showing their disobedience via the social media.

Social networks played a vital role in initiating Egypt’s 2011 uprising.  Essam Sharaf/Wikimedia, CC BY-ND

Social networks played a vital role in initiating Egypt’s 2011 uprising.  © Essam Sharaf/Wikimedia

As was recently witnessed by many scholars, new digital technology ( Twitter or Facebook) have  played a central role in the narratives of NSMs. Because they became  a ‘thing’ for young generations in most developing countries which provide them a platform to express their shared views and generate their fight.   Notable scholars like Cohen and Shirin (2001) argue that youth use the new-media for strategic and innovative protesting by moving local struggles to global battles. Although young participants dominate NSM members, it is hard to say that youth in this category can be labelled as poor people. In most of the Third World countries, NSMs represent a vast majority of the vulnerable and marginalised groups, of which the dominant ones are the youth and women.

Looking at it from a different angle, a key to this discourse is understanding how the notion of poverty is deep-rooted in the social, economic and political aspects of people’s lives.  Poverty is thus powerlessness to having choices and opportunities. With this definition in mind, ‘poor people’ can be labelled as people who are underprivileged in this regard and have more sufferings in many ways. Therefore this gives a room to the new social movement to take action in these realities (mostly in the developing world).

Consider the beginning of Arab Spring in late 2010.  You will understand that the heart of the uprising lies with the dissatisfaction of a vast majority of poor but educated youth in their tyrannical regimes, who have economically and politically been marginalised for an extended period. Let me borrow the words Hassan Hakimian, Director of the London Middle East Institute and Reader in Economics at SOAS, who said “the young generation peacefully rose up against oppressive authoritarianism to secure a more democratic political system and a brighter economic future”. While many scholars may not agree with this view and may claim that the Arab Spring was triggered by a multitude of combined factors, such as lack of political participation and human right violations. However, the chief reason remains that such movement was set off by to end the extreme poverty and mass unemployment within the youth population who felt it was the right time to take action, reform the regimes and ultimately reach economic prosperity.

A protester wearing earrings with the image of the continent of Africa takes part in the International March Against the Genocide of Black People in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 22, 2014.

A protester wearing earrings with the image of the continent of Africa takes part in the International March Against the Genocide of Black People in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 22, 2014.

Another example could be that of Brazilian Black movement against racism. Blacks in Brazil, despite sharing the similar identity, their historical and economic disadvantages brought them together for a common fight. For instance, the scarcely industrialised context of poor Bahia, where being in the workplace was the exception rather than the rule for Afro-Brazilians, led to black organising in the cultural realm.  Other authors, Reiter (2011) for instance, holds the view that even though Blacks used identity as the primary force for formation and mobilisation, their ultimate goal was to pressure the political elites (the government at large) to reform cultural, social and economic status of Blacks within the Brazilian society. As such or because of the fact, the ‘new’ social movement played a crucial role in changing the predicament of poor Afro-Brazilians, and their identity-based movement realised some successes at the end.

It is unfair if I only take the side that participants of the social movements are drawn exclusively from the poor background without considering the sides.  In fact, society, particularly a global society, is diverse and no single rope can bind them all together. As such, the new social movements (NSMs) do protect not only the poor people’s interests but also guard the interests of ‘others’, who may not have equal economic privileges. For instances, in advanced industrial societies, ‘new’ social movement participants struggle to overcome feelings of personal powerlessness generated by the satisfaction of material needs without a corresponding sense of full self-realisation. In contrast, Latin American participants may well come to enjoy some greater sense of personal fulfilment as a consequence of their involvement in new social movements. But their struggles are principally organised around the satisfaction of basic needs.

In conclusion, the new social movements (NSMs) are created to cooperatively fight against communal inequalities, the dominance of the mass media, and other characteristics of post-industrial capitalism and the welfare state. These include feminist, peace, and ecological movements, as well as the rise of pressure groups with racial motives. Jürgen Habermas, a German sociologist, described such changes as an objection against the excessive size and influence of the state and its bureaucracies and their intrusion into the private worlds of individuals. Nevertheless, most of the examples that I cited are from the developing countries, which of course have different realities than these of Western (developed) World which are predominately structured in classes. It is, therefore, correct to sum up that new social movements reflect essential struggles of marginalised and vulnerable groups, poor included, who could not have otherwise expressed their plight within society than to revolt against cultural, social and political inequalities.

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