Reconsidering the Newest Social Movements from the Perspective of Lacanian Sociology.

Author:Rousselle, Duane


This essay examines the 'newest social movement' paradigm advanced by a Canadian sociologist, Richard J.F. Day. I argue that the strength of his methodology consists of its movement away from a tendency to favour the Gramscian organisational logic of 'hegemony', toward an embrace of the 'affinity logic' of modern anarchist political theory. However, the inadequacy of the approach arises due to a number of assumptions, including the following three: (1) there is an assumption that the genealogy of affinity provides a sufficient counter-narrative to the more prevalent logic of hegemony; (2) there is an assumption that the former logic breaks completely from the latter, and; (3) there is an assumption that the former is a spontaneous and contemporary logic while the latter is a bygone determinative logic. I shall aim to demonstrate that a more compelling claim may have been that hegemony logic is a less cunning discourse of mastery than affinity logic, and that the latter is in all actuality a continuation rather than an abandonment of the former. I believe that this amendment broadens the paradigm's applicability and situates it within a global context of determination.

Richard J.F. Day has put forward a bold claim: within many of today's social movements there can be discerned a new cultural logic that aims not at the hegemonic establishment of central nodes of political power but rather at the proliferation of solidarity networks based on the anarchist principle of 'mutual aid'. These solidarity networks organise themselves loosely and horizontally without a fixed centre of political power. Today's most interesting social movements 'display [...] an affinity for affinity, that is, for non-universalizing, non-hierarchical, non-coercive relationships based on mutual aid and shared ethical commitment[s] [...] all of these groups and movements [are involved in an] ongoing displacement of the hegemony of hegemony by an affinity for affinity' (Day, 2005, 9). Day's framework has become a cornerstone for the reorientation of contemporary social movement studies--particularly for those with an 'anarchist studies' orientation--and it has inspired countless scholars (Avery-Natale, 2010; Carroll, 2010; Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2010; Shantz, 2012).


If it is true that the shift from older class-based social movement paradigms toward the 'new' (note: not 'newer') social movement paradigm brought with it a displacement of explicitly political logics by emphasising the prominence of cultural logics (Scott, 1990) then we might also claim that the 'newest' social movement paradigm only further accentuates this displacement. The newest social movements are not political for the precise reason that they are not meant to be understood as hegemonic. In fact, they are not at all what most sociologists or social movement scholars would call 'social movements' at all (Day, 2005, 8). These movements, and scholars of these movements, have therefore continued to deepen the work of many traditional anarchist theorists by distinguishing between 'political revolution' and the 'social revolution'. One of the ways the work has been deepened was by introducing a shift from a logic of 'hegemony', which is a political logic, to the logic of 'affinity', which is a cultural logic.

This shift from politics to culture also introduced a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the nature and function of power and resistance. The underlying methodological premise of the newest paradigm is explicitly genealogical, which is to say that it borrows its theoretical apparatus and assumptions from the writings of Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche. The genealogical method permits newest social movement scholars to unearth the 'social' or 'cultural' revolution already present within political movements and theories (like a seed beneath the snow). Todd May (1994), whose work has also been heavily influenced by Foucault, has described this shift as one from a 'strategic orientation' toward a 'tactical orientation'. The strategic orientation has as its general understanding a notion of power that operates uni-directionally and repressively from a given central and unitary location. This was the position of the 'classical' anarchists. They believed that the state was the major site of political power and repression (see also Newman, 2004). The tactical orientation has as its understanding a notion of power that operates constructively rather than repressively and across a wide range of cultural and social registers. None of these registers have any natural ontological privilege as the key site of power. What exists is merely a semblance of power afforded by a given register where power is permitted (by the multiplicitous collection of social actors) to conglomerate. As Day put it, 'there is no single enemy against which the newest social movements are fighting. Rather, there is a disparate set of struggles, each of which needs to be addressed in its particularity' (Day, 2005, 5-6). The enemy is everywhere, and, therefore, so too is the front line of battle.

The logic of affinity may be retraced within traditional political theory so as to demonstrate that the (neo)liberal and (post)Marxist variants of social movement organisation have displaced an altogether more essential and novel cultural logic. In other words, movements could have organised differently, and this may be demonstrated by unearthing traces of an alternative and immanent framework from deep within the margins of political praxes. This is the goal of the genealogical methodology. Todd May has explained that 'the project of living otherwise is never far from Foucault's writings. When he engages in genealogy, for instance, he does so with the goal of showing us that since who we are now is the product of a contingent history, living otherwise is always available to us' (May, 2014, 120). Historically speaking, the great majority of social movements have remained within the hegemonic orientation. This, in turn, has conditioned their respective logics and induced in them a movement toward either obtaining (e.g., revolution) or else influencing (e.g., reforming) the place of power.


'New' and 'Old' social movement theorists sometimes suffer from a dichotomisation of their aim into a false choice between 'revolution' or 'reform'. Alas, this is also where we can begin to see the inadequacies of the 'newest' social movement paradigm. On the one hand, the newest social movements appear to have already found a way out of the dichotomy of the prevailing hegemonic orientation (Day, 2005, 15-6). They have offered an alternative 'affinity' logic. On the other hand, there is a sense that the newest social movement paradigm enforces a repressed or disavowed moral position that one ought to break out of the hegemonic dichotomy (Ibid., 214). For example, we can see how this position is repressed or disavowed by Day: 'I want to make it clear that I am not advocating total rejection of reformist or revolutionary programs in all cases; to do so would be to attempt to hegemonize the field of social change' (Ibid., 215). Here he is explicitly distancing himself from such a position. I shall return to the importance of this latent moral discourse within newest social movement scholarship momentarily.

For now I simply want to point out that the former descriptive position (statements which appear to simply report upon the ongoings of the newest social movements) does not necessitate the latter moral position (statements that one ought to realise the inadequacies of the hegemonic position and align oneself with affinity logic). One could in principle describe the cultural logic of the newest social movements without subscribing to that same logic at the prescriptive or moral level. One could claim that the newest social movements appear to be working within a logic of affinity without necessarily claiming that it is the logic that we should all adopt. Meta-ethicists describe the movement from the former position to the latter as the tendency to conflate descriptive or 'second-order' ethical discourse with prescriptive 'first order' discourse (Mackie, 1977, 16; see also Burgess, 2007, 437). This introduces a problem concerning Day's movement toward prescriptive normative ethics, a problem to which I shall now turn.

It is in the movement from descriptive to prescriptive (otherwise referred to as 'normative') ethics that newest social movement scholars suffer a devastating lapse of logic. Their failure to articulate or justify the connection between descriptive and prescriptive ethics has left a more significant question open. It is a question that metaethicists have entertained for decades: from whence do ethical subjects obtain their notion of the 'good', and through which means of justification (Rousselle, 2012)? To be sure, there is within Day's work an analysis of the stated beliefs of the newest social movements. This is the data that they themselves present to the world. It is the data meant for public consumption. It is the data studied and reported on by scholars within the university. This is what Jacques Lacan named the 'enunciated statements'. But nowhere in the work of the newest social movement scholars is there an analysis of the unconscious determinations propelling the discourse of these movements. This is what Lacan named the 'enunciations of statements' (Lacan, 1973, 139-40).

It is my conviction that scholars of the newest social movements do not go far enough by simply reporting on the ongoings of a given social movement at the level of the enunciated. There must also be an analysis of the repressed or disavowed enunciations. The analysis of unconscious determinations does not imply that the university has somehow succeeded in imposing its discourse onto social movements. Quite the contrary, it...

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