French sociologist Alain Accardo has penned an interesting essay on the social movement that has spread all over Europe, starting in Spain with Los Indignados, Les Indignés en France, or the whole Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere. For him, analysis of the movement has either focused on the emotional aspects (hence the reference to indignation) or the aspects that most puzzled the media (no clearly designated leaders, no clear platform, etc.). Of course, the sources of said indignation are rooted in a variety of motives, from the most micro (personal unemployment or precarization) to more macro aspects (action / inaction of the government, austerity programs, breakdown of the welfare state to the view of global financial capitalism as a rigged game).
But Accardo adopts a critical stance with the very label of “indignados” or “indignés” (outraged would be an approximate translation) because, rather than capture a political project, it remains at the level psychological or moral state, leaving the door open to a variety of interpretations. The label of “indignados” is a soft empirical category turned into a pseudo-concept (much like “hipsters”). Such categories are better at designating commercial / advertising targets based on a vaguely defined personality trait where the norm / average is impossible to capture objectively. Such is the case for indignation.
As important as such a psychological or moral state may be, as it is a necessary ingredient to social movements trying to effect systemic change, if such movements stay at that level, governments do not have much to fear. Moral outrage is no substitute, for Accardo, for a lack of doctrine, program, organizational structures, common perspectives and analysis, leaders. And it does not look like this will change. For now, it is more cathartic collective behavior than actual social movement.
Participants may see these things as strengths or, at least, the price to pay to avoid stigmatization and co-optation by traditional political organizations (such as political parties and labor unions). As justified as this rejection, hostility or distrust of the political establishment may be (and, for Accardo, they are), they deprive the collective of the necessary structuring for social mobilization to turn collective behavior into an “ephemeral happening”, as Accardo puts it. The fact that the leftist establishment (especially in Europe) has failed does not mean one can do without any organization or structuring. There is a world of difference between an activist and a soldier, between mass behavior and revolutionary armies. The history of class struggles shows that they are less about flash mobs and fair atmospheres and that there is always a hardening stage where amateurs are quick to leave the field (the dismantling of the camps and the US David pepper spraying aggression partly illustrate this), or, as it is the 21st century, are quick to play concern trolls.
It would not be the first time that we see short-lived eruptions of rebellion, certainly helped by social media technologies but these technologies play mostly the part of amplifying and rapidly propagating emotions, more than anything else. And so, the movement can only persist if it remains vague and undefined as any effort to define and circumscribe it would lead to its dismantling as major differences between the participants would emerge. Indeed, the movement managed to pull together every shade of political left (understood in a very broad sense), from those mostly concerned about unemployment and financial regulations to those who want more radical systemic transformations. And so, the nebulous nature of the movement is both its strength and its weakness, a very fragile equilibrium.
At the same time, Accardo is not satisfied with the idea that this informal movement emerged on the ashes of the establishment left and the legitimation crisis. For him, the rise of the indignados movement is a good illustration of the way the middle classes struggles have been shaped by forty years of neoliberalism. It does not mean that all the participants are from the middle classes but from people who have largely grown up in post-industrial societies, where levels of education are higher and where “middle class” has become fetishized and a hegemonic cultural category as the class that was entitled to reap the benefits of late capitalism (through higher education and investment in ICT skills) and was therefore invested in its maintenance and adaptation. This category has relegated to the back of the bus the struggles of industrial, blue-collar working classes and the wage workers (those that identified the most with labor unions and, in Europe, the traditional constituencies of the communist parties). And so, this petty bourgeoisie was ideologically convinced by the new spirit of capitalism of its right to hedonistic consumerism and individualism.
This ethos of the middle class, present in the Occupy / indignados movement is one that was socialized with the ideology of breaking sclerotic old modes of organization / production / politics. And as analyses of the financial collapse have shown, elite schools and universities have furnished classes of highly educated people to the maintenance of the system, either in government or on Wall Street. This ethos is reformist and has benefited social-democratic parties all over Europe. In the US, I would argue that this has translated into a rejection of the political in favor of the technocratic (or also called pragmatic) as the proper mode of governance, beyond ideology. The promotion of the technocrat has also been at the core of the ideological construction of the EU as neoliberal entity. This is an argument often mentioned regarding the supposed pragmatism of the Obama administration.
So, the Occupy / indignados movement, for Accardo, is more bricolage than stable political force that could potentially shake the political ground in the US/Euro countries. There are no indications that a potential structuring of radical social force advocating for the global commons, or a more equal distribution of resources or for full democratic governance. It is not a revolutionary movement. At it stands, the dominant ideological climate is a mish-mash of equivocal ideas and sentiments having more to do with being able to participate in the system (get rid of the cheaters and the rigging of the game rather than the game itself).
At the same time, should the Euro crisis deepen (“should”??), the European middle-class may have to give up the double game it has always played (staying on the fence when it came to class struggle, getting the most out of the system by affiliating with upper classes, and distinguishing itself from the working class while engaging with intermittent alliances with it). Faced with precarization and downward mobility, is emulating / serve / imitate the wealthy still a viable social project? As social stratification distribution become more hourglass-shaped, are the middle the classes still “middle”? I think the triumph of right-wing parties in the Euro countries in crisis shows that this is not happening. The media are also working hard to redirect attention to scapegoats (immigrants and minorities, for instance) away from class struggles. The relationships of domination that have characterized class conscience in Europe have not shifted.
As Accardo concludes, the middle classes have certainly been, at different times, a source of social progress. But more often than not, they are also historically, the best defenders of the system against which they might rebel with indignation every once in a while. For Accardo then, it remains to be seen whether this time is different.