Friday, November 5, 2010

Social Capital in Anarchist Movements

[Rough draft of an essay originally written in the Spring of 2005. I've since updated and expanded it.]

French sociologist Touraine (1981) argued that social movements are a mandatory, if not central, component to the discipline of sociology. Consequently, the questions “What created the dominant social patterns and institutions of this world?”, “Who resists them?” and “How?” are of primary importance for the study of society and social movements. The potential answers to these questions are what makes social capital theory exciting, herein illustrated by the example of contemporary anarchist movements. The various forms of social capital theorized by James S. Coleman may help shed light on the answers to the above questions. For those lacking economic and financial capital, social capital is a key means to not only individual agency, but also social change, particularly within social movement organizations (SMOs). Social capital theory applied to social movements suggests that the common denominator of any movement is usually its raw, collective people power—both bodies and minds.[1]

Sociologists and activists alike have long debated the degree to which social action is facilitated by agency or restricted by social structure. For Coleman (1988), social capital is one clear means of agency and is created by people within the relationships they share. “[S]ocial capital is productive making possible the achievement of certain ends that in its absence would not be possible… Unlike other forms of capital, social capital inheres it the structure or relations between actors and among actors” (p. S98). Coleman describes (1988) three important forms social capital can take: (1) trust, (2) information channels, and (3) norms and sanctions. Seen through these varieties, it is clear that social capital is an important “thing” created within social movements. This conception of social capital is akin to a particular operationalization of social resources, as described by resource mobilization theory (Edwards & McCarthy 2004); the very strength of movements themselves may derive from the accumulation—and application—of social capital (in other words, movements build social capital as a resource and then mobilize when appropriate). According to Coleman (1988), individually-useful resources like human capital (e.g. knowledge, skills, credentials) necessitate the acquisition and deployment of social capital in order to make an impact. In other words, people need each other in order to pursue their own private ends. Taken to its logical conclusion, social capital helps people working in movement organizations, groups, and networks to acquire collective power that they would not possess as mere individuals.

The first form of Coleman’s (1988) social capital is trust, which can facilitate the exchange of expectation and obligation. The ties between individuals are stronger when there is greater expectation—people know they can rely upon others to follow-through on important, required tasks. Stronger ties foster a more intense sense of obligation, as friends, comrades, fellow participants, and activists feel they have to support each other. This obligation may appear to be rooted in common values, shared experiences, or promises. Curiously, social capital is an unspoken component of the anarchist theory and practice of “mutual aid”: the free exchange of physical, monetary, or political support with the expectation that others will in-turn support them if and when necessary. Movements that encourage the practice of mutual aid are likely to have greater social capital and the more likely people are to trust one another. Trust is particularly useful in revolutionary movements where the risk of state repression is highest. Part of this deep trust is represented in the willingness to plan possibly illegal actions—property destruction against corporate property, blockading military depots, sabotaging logging equipment, supporting wildcat strikes, or unpermitted marches—with each other and assume that sensitive information will not be conveyed to anyone else, whether loose-lipped friends or law enforcement. Sharing secrets is important in radical movements and anti-authoritarian direct action plans tend to be kept strictly within circles that are part of the planning. A key example of such trust is that found within the SMO called an “affinity group”, small grouping composed exclusively of people who know, trust, and share common identities with each other. Affinity groups are similar to families, but deliberately built around political commitments that may engage in contentious and challenging activities—such as in a militant protest or other direct action—that require strong trust and support from one's affinity group.

Coleman’s (1988) second form of social capital, information channels, also leads to the empowerment of social movements. Social capital is fostered and accumulated when activists create and regularly exercise communication through radical information channels. As the networks of communication broaden within movements, it is easier for those movements to understand the obstacles they face. Even within geographically diffuse networks, people may remain in contact through telecommunications and Internet technologies, such as cell phones, email listserves, and groupware (which facilitate organizational decision-making via democratic and collective methods[2]). Activists rely upon each other to gather important information, such as on-the-ground observations about the layout of a city's downtown area, useful for planning a protest, civil disobedience, or other direct action. If one's comrades know whom to contact from other communities, this is valuable information in the search for allies and broader solidarity. Most importantly, anarchist networks are premised upon the free access to information, whether it is mere data, facts, analysis, ideas, or theory. Consequently, anarchists place an emphasis on lowering the cost to information (via free ‘zines, leaflets, internet essay archives, or guerrilla radio programs), the democratic creation of movement analyses (such as with the Independent Media Center model), and mass distribution of news (for example, the A-Infos News Service and accompanying free radio project). To the extent that these information channels permeate every sector of the anarchist movement, the more likely participants will be highly-engaged in important movement debates and theorizing, will have up-to-date understanding of current events and movement activity, and will feel a sense of unity with each other. The quality of information people can acquire in these networks will determine the level of social capital and thus influence the potential of movement personnel's ability to achieve their goals. Movements can aspire to accomplish their goals by wielding information as a tool to combat ignorance, confusion, censorship, and seclusion.

The final social capital form is manifested in social norms, which facilitate certain actions while constraining other. If a movement norm exists that calls on participants to help each other out, even in extreme situations, then the movement will be stronger. Norms can facilitate social capital in all manner of situations. For example, if a fellow demonstrator is being placed under arrest by a police officer during a physically confrontational protest, an anarchist norm often suggests that other demonstrators should assist the person facing arrest. When using “black bloc” tactics, the norm of “unarresting” exists, where demonstrators physically pull such an arrestee away from police officers, removing that demonstrator from police “custody”. If the unarresting is successful, the person is pulled deeper into the bloc’s ranks and helped to disappear from police surveillance. This anarchist norm contributes to the social capital of all participants, as they understand that others will “have their back”. The norms—and potential sanctions—lobbied against those who deviate from these expectations within SMOs help to create and sustain a radical culture of both internal and external criticism. For instance, acting in the interest of the collective is often a SMO norm. As mentioned earlier, if illegal activities (civil disobedience, direct action, property destruction, etc.) are potentialities for the anarchist movement, participants tend to make broad, general statements in support of such actions, but withhold relevant details from individuals not within one’s own affinity group. This norm of “security culture” prevents law enforcement from gaining accurate or useful information about an organization or action. To violate this norm, would result in informal sanctions from other anarchists. A “loose-lipped” individual is unlikely to be trusted as much in the future, will be educated and pressured by others to understand the accompanying risks of sharing private information, and perhaps asked to leave the organization. A regular violation of such a norm (especially by multiple individuals) is apt to harm the social relations upon which social capital rests. For example, intervention by government and corporate actors (in the form of subversion, spying, and disruption) is more successful when the security culture norm is weak or nonexistent. Thus, sanctions are important strategies to improving adherence to important movement norms.

Social capital can also be generalizable. Thus, the social capital acquired by a particular movement can benefit members within an entire social category. For example, the feminist movement benefits all women in society, not just participants in that movement. Civil rights movements benefit the members of all disadvantaged groups (such as racial, ethnic, or religious minorities), not just those who populate civil rights organizations. Gains by anarchist movements—to expand the domains of freedom, to challenge the legitimacy of hierarchical institutions, to create alternative institutions founded on radical values—indirectly benefit others in a society who can use such accomplishments for themselves (this extension may or may not actually enhance social capital itself, for everyone, though, but maybe just its immediate benefits). Thus, social capital’s benefits are different from physical and human capital where benefits are enjoyed only by those who invest in such capital forms.[3]

Since organizations are arguably one of the most important scales of analysis for studying social movements (McCarthy and Zald 1977), it is reasonable to try applying social capital to SMOs. To my delight, but not necessarily surprise, some scholars have already begun to do so, with exciting results (Smith 1998, Paxton 2002, Mayer 2003). Thus, the breadth of social capital theory offers great opportunities to assist in understanding social movements and SMOs. Also, anarchist movements might want to seriously consider how to improve their social capital in order to improve their chances of goal-achievement.

[1] The importance of mass participation is noted in the work of Charles Tilly, where he emphasizes the importance of WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment (Tilly 2004).
[2] The Riseup Collective's “CrabGrass” software project is a prime example.
[3] This, of course, introduces the problems of free-riding (see Olson 1965), which may be overcome by value-driven action as opposed to purely “rational” action, social pressures to participate, small-sized groups, and a fair and even distribution of collectives goods in society.

* Coleman, James. 1988. “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital”. American Journal of Sociology, 94: S95-S120.
* Edwards, Bob and John D. McCarthy. 2004. “Resources and Social Movement Mobilization”. Pp. 116-152 in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by D.A. Snow, S.A. Soule, & H. Kriesi. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
* Mayer, Margit. 2003. “The Onward Sweep of Social Capital: Causes and Consequences for Understanding Cities, Communities, and Urban Movements”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27 (1): 110-132.
* McCarthy, John D. and Mayer N. Zald. 1977. “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory”. American Journal of Sociology, 82: 1212-1241.
* Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
* Paxton, Pamela. 2002. “Social Capital and Democracy: An Interdependent Relationship”. American Sociological Review, 67 (2): 254-277.
* Smith, Jackie. 1998. “Global Civil Society?: Transnational Social Movement Organizations and Social Capital”. American Behavioral Scientist, 42 (1): 93-107.
* Tilly, Charles. 2004. Social Movements: 1768-2004. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
* Touraine, Alaine. 1981. The Voice and the Eye: An Analysis of Social Movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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