By Mikayla Novak

The last two decades have seen a proliferation of social movements challenging a wide range of institutions, organisations, practices, and values. Indeed, many of these movements have become household names: Occupy Wall Street; Tea Party; Arab Spring; and Black Lives Matter, to name a few. Large numbers of individuals have participated in, and sympathised with, a range of social movements combating political oppression in Venezuela, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and Cuba. As has been identified by scholars such as Tyler Cowen, protests and other contentious tactics have been deployed against a range of political and economic restrictions.

Social movement activity has been prosecuted over a vast number of issues, and some evidence suggests that movement mobilisation has increased. Given the frequency and scale of social movements, and the extraordinary repertoire of tactics their participants employ to draw attention to their causes, it is clear they warrant investigation from social scientists. It is in this investigatory spirit that I wrote Freedom in Contention: Social Movements and Liberal Political Economy.

However, it might be worth clarifying the following question: what are social movements? Given the informality and dynamism of different social movements, and their wide range of activities, this is hardly a simple question to answer. The highly-entangled ways with which movements’ participants engage with actors across political, commercial, cultural, and societal domains of action can frustrate the quest for a simplified conception of social movements. Furthermore, the diversity of organisational attributes associated with movements adds additional complexity.  Social movements may exist as highly informal network structures, with extensive amounts of participatory decision-making, or they may assume a highly formal organisational form, with a hierarchical structure and limited decision-making capacity on the part of activists and supporters. The dynamic nature of social movements is not solely influenced by the outcomes of their, at times, conflictual interactions with governments, businesses, and other groups, but by internal tensions of movement factionalism, organizational splintering, disagreements over which issues to prioritize publicly, and tactical disputations as well.

In my book, I draw upon sociology and other social sciences to arrive at the following definition: a social movement is “sustained collective engagement by multiple participants, typically involving counter-hegemonic or extra-institutional activities, aiming to effect change within society.” This definition seeks to convey that social movements are collective actors intentionally pushing for some preferred arrangements or states of the world. In Freedom in Contention, I depict social movements as a peculiar kind of “relational glue,” helping to thread pockets of civil society together in their efforts to drive change. However, I also recognise the normative character of social movement activity. The causes advocated by movements, as well as their potential to mobilise disruptive protests, strikes, boycotts, and deploy other contentious tactics, have the capacity to arouse disagreement and conflict. Social movement participation is often seen as a rebellious mode of conduct not typically associated with the liberal temperament of toleration, moderation, and consensus. To some extent, these perceptions have been undergirded by social scientific theories of “collective behaviour” characterising movement activities as disorderly, and largely spontaneous, exertions of public disaffection against hegemonic institutions and practices.

Freedom in Contention invites researchers of liberal philosophical disposition to reconsider how scholarship may be used to improve our understanding of the nature and significance of social movements. I frame this invitation in two principal ways. The first suggests that the conceptual and analytical tools of contemporary liberal political economy can be fruitfully applied to study social movement participation and activity. Specifically, insights from the Austrian (with Hayek as figurehead), Bloomington (Ostroms), and Virginia (Buchanan) traditions can be used to describe why and how social movements are organised, and conduct themselves in the ways they do. Applying insights from these approaches to the analysis of social movements, I argue the postulates of liberal political economy allow for a dynamic conceptualisation of social change. This form of social change is facilitated by citizens choosing to associate with each other in an effort to challenge different aspects of concentrated power structures, discover effective tactics for raising public issues and persuading compatriots, and learn the arts of democratic coordination and governance.

Allow me to break down these considerations a little further. Since its inception, Austrian economics has been noted for its recognition of entrepreneurship as a cornerstone of human economic agency. Over the past few decades, the intellectual innovations of Austrain scholars such as Don Lavoie and his colleagues and students (such as Peter Boettke, Virgil Storr, and Emily Chamlee-Wright) have examined the non-economic bases of entrepreneurial action within civil society. A key element of this intellectual project has involved comparing the efficacy of entrepreneurship in articulating social problems and proposed strategies to ameliorate them, accounting for variation in incentives and feedback mechanisms between economic and non-economic institutional environments. Further applications of this work include the entrepreneurial interpretability of cultural symbols, and the relevance of social capital in distilling knowledge. My book argues that these considerations are relevant to understanding social movement formation and persistence, and have relevance for appreciating novel movement activities in uncertain environments featuring resistance to change by state and non-state actors.

The pathbreaking work by the Ostroms and the followers of the Bloomington school provides a solid appreciation for the maintenance and resilience of non-state forms of collective action, including, I argue, social movement activities. Led by Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, Bloomington scholarship emphasized the importance of individuals, and groups of actors, interacting within dispersed sites of decision-making and power to discover and implement their own solutions to various social dilemmas and collective action problems. From a social movement perspective, the insights of the Ostroms are evident in the endogenous creation and maintenance of decision rules, encompassing how a movement is to be constituted as well as how protests, and other tactics, are to be planned. The methods social movements use to sustain collective action through persuasive narrative framing, and emotional bonding amongst movement participants, are other notable applications of Ostromian insights. Social movements, it is argued, present a good case for how people can resolve issues and sustain multi-person commitments in interaction with, but also beyond, the boundaries of market and state.

The third leg of the liberal political economy tripod is that of Virginia political economy, especially the public choice approach to political analysis. Arguably the most relevant application of public choice to theories of social movements involves the feasibility of large-scale collective action, as canonically articulated by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action. Olson’s argument continue to influence debates in social movement literature but, as I argue in my book, public choice theory has matured to accommodate non-instrumental motivations and patterns of collective action. Furthermore, I articulate key processes wherein social movement participants engage with legislative, judicial, and other branches of government to pursue various aspects of change. I suggest that it difficult to imagine a functionally robust liberal-democratic polity absent social movements which, in addition to voting mechanisms and electoral contests, play a role in revealing problems, the intensity with which those problems are being felt, as well as drawing political attention to them.

By raising their voices in the public square, and thrusting their bodies toward the barricades, social movement participants are commonly perceived as a highly disruptive force in society, challenging various forms of authority and the institutions underpinning them. The general impression gleaned from academic and popular writings is that certain liberals view movement activism with suspicion. Social movements have often been seen as a front for rent-seeking within existing liberal-democratic systems, or as a vehicle to propound affective rhetoric risking productive enterprise in the name of redistribution. Whilst there are very real concerns about rent-seeking and political favoritism, and the at times violent tactics used by social movement participants that may harm life and property, not all social movements should be tarred with the same brush of negativity or dismissal.

The second invitation Freedom in Contention offers for the study social movements is that some (not all) movements have been pivotal in driving societal transformations in the direction of greater economic, political, and social freedoms. My book illustrates how movements have successfully engaged in struggles against political authorities – for example, with respect to voting rights, trade, property rights, feminism, tax limitation and fiscal nondiscrimination, and racial equality. It is also important to learn how movements have failed to achieve their objectives, say, by garnering insufficient popular support, engaging in tactical misadventures, or through their causes being quashed by governmental repression. Any analysis of the contribution of social movement participation and activity to the realisation of human liberties must confront the empirical reality that certain movements have actively campaigned for shifting governance, institutional, and organisational boundaries from voluntarism to coercion. What is clear is that movements can influence the trajectory of liberty, and on this basis are important phenomena to study in their own right.

Far from being an antiquarian concern, I outline how contemporary social movement activity will shape the parameters within which our freedoms are to be exercised. One of the more obvious ways in which modern movements are doing this is through their use of the Internet and related digital media platforms, which are being used to rally populations to specific movement causes as well as encouraging and helping organize participation in the form of street protests. We are a long way from the limited, if not rudimentary, set of communication technologies that shaped those collective actions discussed by Mancur Olson decades ago in his Logic of Collective Action. As I discuss in my book, the Internet, social media, and smartphones have reshaped the organisational and participation costs of social movement activity, albeit in ways yet to be fully understood.

Another important contemporary consideration is how technology may not only be used to harness movement activities, but enhance the repressive powers of governmental surveillance and repression in cracking down against freedom of assembly and speech. As has been illustrated by heavy-handed law enforcement against peaceful protests in recent years, the “visible fist” of government is not limited to digital tracking of dissenters. As Chris Coyne, Abigail Hall, Nathan Goodman, and others have pointed out, police forces, especially in America, have become increasingly militarised in their dealings with social movements and the broader society. Repressive counter-tactics by public sector actors, as well as by counter-movement activists, are conducted with a generic intention to curtail the ability of activists to congregate, as well as create internal tensions among movement organisers or even splinter dissident groups altogether. If social movements are critical to the discovery and revelation of social problems, their repression serves as an important problem to be studied and addressed.

Finally, I refer to those contemporary social movements that organise to oppose what has been labelled “the captured economy”. The captured economy is a term encapsulating fiscal, legislative, and regulatory policy domains which have the effect of redistributing income and wealth from the lower and middle classes to higher income groups, and also function to limit upward economic mobility. Contravening any notion to the effect that social movements, always push for regressive policies and constricted growth, my book discusses how a range of movements seek to promote a range of economic freedoms. Some of these include anti-tax protestors, movements advocating greater housing affordability, less restrictive patent regulations, and collectives advocating the alleviation of other policy-induced cost of living pressures.

Societal changes induced by social movements are evident in the domain of laws, rights, and legal entitlements, as well as cultural-social norms and practices. Freedom in Contention seeks to illuminate how social movements inspire and catalyse a range of changes that have important implications for human freedom. To be certain, my book is not intended as the final word concerning a “liberalism of social movements” but, rather, it invites further exploration of this fascinating realm of collective activity. Social movements are woven deep into the fabric of our humanity and, as “students of civilisation,” they merit scholarly attention from the perspective of liberal theory.

About the Author

Mikayla Novak is an educator and researcher in the School of Sociology, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Click here to learn more about her research.

Freedom in Contention: Social Movements and Liberal Political Economy (Lexington Books) is available now. Click here to learn more about the book.

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