Notes On Social Theory: Richard Seymour Thinking Social Movements

Sometimes you stumble across a very general point that someone has put very well and it just makes your morning.

Last couple of days I’m struggling with the horror of writing a chapter on Brexit.

Looking for clarity and a vigorous analytical perspective I was reading Richard Seymour. Author of amongst many things:

He blogs at and tweets at @leninology

Back in August 2016 during the crisis in the British Labour Party post-Brexit, in a post on the theme of turning the party into a social movement, Richard wrote this:

“The category of ‘social movement’ describes a series of outcomes, so it would be useful to think about the processes of which they are outcomes. Only in that way can we break with the reification, and then realistically think about the conditions for both effective mobilisation and success. So I would propose the following as premises:

i. The most basic social unit is not the individual, which is merely a politico-juridical effect of power relations, but the relation. Nothing social happens until there is a relationship (be it political, ideological or economic) between at least two types of agent.
ii. These relations are organised within a particular mode of production, which assigns agents within them particular capacities and powers, depending on their dominance or subjugation.
iii. The dominant relations in a given mode of production, insofar as it is characterised by exploitation, are antagonistic, thus leaving the social field cross-sected by struggles.
iv. The mode of production is never fully ‘realised’. It is always only realised to an extent within an open, complex and generative structure-in-difference, or social formation. It is the social formation in a given conjuncture, not the mode of production, that is the terrain of action of social forces.
v. For relations to persist, they must be reproduced, and thus the manner of their reproduction, as well as the productive forces available to them to continue doing so, is decisive.
These premises stress a processual perspective, and it in that perspective that we can start to locate the social movement. First of all, we can say that a condition for the emergence of a social movement is that the reproduction of a given social relationship has been put into question. Thus, a movement will be concerned with the conservation, disruption, reform, abolition or expanded reproduction of a set of social relations. That allows us to broadly comprehend the character of social movements (as reactionary, conservative, reformist, revolutionary, etc). A second condition for the emergence of a social movement is that social groups who are in an antagonistic relationship with one another come into direct (though overdetermined) conflict.
In addition, and given that the reproduction of a social relation is necessarily a political issue, a third condition is that the emerging combatants must have some reference to political power – that is the state – the nature of which is structured by the differential access of classes and social groups to the state and the opportunities for mobilisation it provides. A fourth is that, given the overdetermination of political struggles, the participants in the conflict extend beyond those directly involved in the antagonistic relationship in question, and draws into movement those who have heterogeneous interests and ideologies. This necessitates what Gramsci termed a ‘system of alliances’ governed by a shared structure of meaning (sometimes called ‘framing’) which may extend well beyond the specific politicality of the movement and even involve a richly complex ‘way of life’ or several (like cooperativism, unionism, membership of military clubs, ‘Klankraft’, etc).
The specific social capacities arising from social relations whose reproduction has been put into question must be activated in that conflict – this is the fifth condition. These can be class capacities, endowed by one’s place in the relations of production (capitalists enjoy control of markets, workers enjoy collective strength, etc) but one can also speak more generally (following Piven and Cloward) of ‘disruptive capacities’ which follow from one’s ability to withdraw one’s contribution to the reproduction of society. Since these capacities are distributed unevenly, and formed in relation to different identities and ways of life, the specific organisation of these capacities is subordinate to the political and ideological aspects of coalition forming.
Finally, these social capacities can only be convoked in particular spatial contexts (say, big urban settings) in which economic, political and ideological relations are concentrated. As Manuel Castells wrote, the segmentation of social and political space is a way of organising production relations, consumption patterns, sociality, social reproduction, and so on. That is to say, there is necessarily a territoriality to the action of social movements, which structures their options and prospects. They make a claim to the ‘national’ space, but they operate only within definite enclaves.

Moment’s of “back to first principles” clarity like this are a precious. They are also thought-provoking. How do I feel about the idea of the “social field” in point iii. and the “social formation” as a “structure-in-difference” under point iv? But when you start with Brexit and end up by asking yourself that kind of question, you know someone has added light to your morning.

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