Wednesday, December 8, 2010

New Social Movement (NSM) Theories and Anarchism: 2. New Social Constituencies

Both NSM theories and resource mobilization overlap in their emphasis upon the “middle-class”. In the view of both theories, the middle-class has a central role in movement struggles. Yet, this emphasis is derived from different premises. For resource mobilization, the middle-class is the logical agent of movements since they are more likely to belong to organizations with greater resources than the working class (c.f. McCarthy & Zald 1977). NSM theories emphasize middle-class participation due to the shift of societal struggle from industrial/economic to cultural/political.

While anarchism has historically been a working-class movement (Guérin 2005), NSM theorists suggest modern movements include greater participation and leadership by middle-class members. Williams (2009b) notes a similar, NSM-like trend for contemporary anarchists: only 31 percent of respondents to a popular anarchist webpage survey self-identified as “working-class”. Although still a sizable minority, this represents a dramatic reversal from classical anarchism. Also, only 24 percent were members of an economic, class-based organization: the labor union (Williams 2009b). Still, the presence of a self-identified working-class—as well as one apt to belong to labor unions—indicates a certain inconsistency with NSM arguments about the “classlessness” of contemporary movements.

Instead of working class-led movements, NSMs supposedly consist of a “new middle class” that includes non-managerial professionals, such as artists, academics, and social service workers. Many well-known anarchists work in such occupations, although this presence is clearly not sufficient evidence for accepting NSM arguments. Numerous anarchist artists and organizations exist, including Clifford Harper, Gee Vaucher, Josh MacPhee, Eric Drooker, Seth Tobocman, Art & Revolution, Black Mask/Up Against the Wall, Just Seeds, and many small art collectives (see MacPhee & Reuland 2007). Anarchists have been at the forefront of alternative education projects since the turn of the last century. Francisco Ferrer's “modern schools” were early attempts to free children from the indoctrination by both the State's nationalism and capitalism's workforce obedience (Avrich 1980, Spring 1998). Free schools have also received consistent support from anarchists (see Ehrlich 1991), although the extent to which these projects are truly anarchist is debatable, as is the implication for those who may “work” at such schools (likely without pay) and their subsequent class status. Famous anarchist intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Paul Goodman, Howard Zinn, David Graeber, and others have occupied academic positions, even at elite universities, while retaining their anarchist sentiments. The recent re-birth of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the US in a more anarchistic (and less Marxist) form is another example of this constituency. Finally, social work is an active, action-oriented profession/practice, aimed at directly helping people. Yet, there are few openly anarchist social workers, perhaps because the occupation tends to be subsumed within the bureaucratic confines of state welfare systems (Gilbert 2004).

Ultimately, however, contemporary anarchists may not be distilled down neatly into just the middle-class (and its professional occupations) or the working-class; the movement’s composition is too nuanced and complex for the typical reductionism NSM theories have previously offered. It could be that middle-class anarchists have higher than average visibility in the movements, perhaps due to their human capital or other resources, such as flexible work schedules.

Anarchism pulls from an ideological—rather than ethnic, religious, or class-based—community. All anarchists are linked by their ideology, not socio-economic-cultural background. In most anarchist organizations—outside of organizations founded to create safe-spaces for oppressed minorities, like anarcha-feminist or anarchist people of color (APOC) collectives—the uniting factor is one's belief in anarchism. Thus, young and old, educated and undereducated, or middle-class and working class, work together for common goals. As opposed to old movements where unity might have come from common class-background or ethnic status, NSMs like modern anarchism are based upon a shared radical vision and praxis. Yet, this unity based on ideology is not inherently new—anti-authoritarianism was also the uniting factor in classical anarchism, too. Thus, contemporary anarchism cannot easily be categorized as a NSM if its adherents share the same commonalities as in an earlier era.[X]

Youth are one final “new constituency”. This constituency presents unique problems for movements in the long-term: younger participants grow older. The anarchist movement shares other commonalities with the standard NSMs usually noted (i.e. student, environmental, anti-war) in that its ranks are incredibly young.[XX] Unlike other movements—such as the anti-war movement—anarchism seems to have been less able to retain its membership cohorts over the past few decades. The extent to which this pattern will continue for much of the anarchist movement is presently unclear. During anarchism's “golden age” in the late-1800s and early-1900s, anarchists were of all ages, as they were socialized to be anarchists while in childhood or were radicalized through industrial experience. Today, anarchism is associated in the media with “youth rebellion” against society, thus implying that anarchism is a side-effect of immaturity. To the extent that this is true, once youthfulness recedes such rebellious tendencies may also pass.


[X] NSM theory’s temporal ambiguity is also the target of Calhoun (1993) and Tucker (1991).

[XX] Williams’s (2009b) study shows an average age of 26 years old.


Avrich, P. (1980.) The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Calhoun, C. (1993) “'New Social Movements' of the Early Nineteenth Century”. Social Science History, 17 (3), Fall: 385-427.

Ehrlich, H. (1991) “Notes from an Anarchist Sociologist: May 1989”. Pp. 233-248 in Radical Sociologists and the Movement: Experiences, Lessons, and Legacies, edited by M. Oppenheimer, M. J. Murray, and R. F. Levine. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Gilbert, M.S. (2004) Anarchists in Social Work: Known to the Authorities. Self-published.

Guérin, D. (2005) No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism. Oakland: AK Press.

MacPhee, J. and Reuland, E. (2007) Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

McCarthy, J.D. and Zald, M. (1977) “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory”. American Journal of Sociology, 82 (6): 1212-1241.

Spring, J. (1998) A Primer of Libertarian Education. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Tucker, K.H. (1991) “How New are the New Social Movements?”. Theory, Culture & Society, 8: 75-98.

Williams, D.M. (2009b) “Anarchists and Labor Unions: An Analysis Using New Social Movement Theories”. WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, 12 (3), September: 337-354.

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