Social Movements and Marketisation, Selling Out or Ultimate Success?

Social movements generate a wide range of artefacts. Typically, when we hear the word artefact, we think of specific objects. Some of the objects produced by social movements are acts of advocacy: they promote their message to the wider community through placards, stickers, and T-shirts. In doing so they aim to grow the movement and affect change.

Artefacts of Social Movements

Some objects serve to enhance what can be called ‘bonding’ social capital: they project to their owners a sense of inclusion of membership in a wider group. My favourite example of an object with ‘bonding’ social capital would be medallions produced by the various abstinence societies that were a major social force in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These served to increase personal commitment to the cause, and identify other like-minded individuals. These types of objects can be found today in the Sobriety Coins some Alcoholics Anonymous groups give to members to celebrate milestones, demonstrating way social movements can hold, reproduce, and redeploy ideas over quite long periods of time.

Medal issued by Melbourne Total Abstinence Society, Victoria, about 1890, Museum Victoria collection, NU 20239
Medal issued by Melbourne Total Abstinence Society, Victoria, about 1890, Museum Victoria collection, NU 20239

These two types of object have a significant relationship. In producing objects that allow people to demonstrate one’s membership of a group, the popularity of the movement can be shown to the wider community. If large enough, this becomes a political resource. This is commonly associated with the social movement notion of ‘WUNC’. That is, they exhibit worthiness (of cause), unity (of members), numbers (size) and commitment. More WUNC = greater success.

But the word “artefact” can also refer to broader types of structures produced by humans, not only specific objects produced by individuals. Thus, a city can be an artefact, for example. In this way social movements, as collectives, can also produce collective artefacts.

Markets as Artefacts

In my recent research into animal welfare policy making in Australia I’ve been interested in the relationship between social movements and markets. Markets, you see, can be seen as artefacts.

On one level, the relationship is quite obvious. Animal welfare activists often advocate for increased regulation of primary producers. A good recent example would be calls to ban the live export of cattle from Australia.

Social movements also generate markets. This happens in two ways. First, in developing WUNC, social movements attract entrepreneurs who see common interests and numbers, the definition of a ‘market segment’.

In the context of animal welfare concerns in Australia, the number of people who avoid meat or other animal products in Australia ranges between 1 and 2.6 million people. That’s no small beer.

Photograph of the Federal Coffee Palace, photographed by Nettleton & Arnest Photographic Studio, Melbourne, c. 1890, Museum Victoria collection, MM 109758
Photograph of the Federal Coffee Palace, photographed by Nettleton & Arnest Photographic Studio, Melbourne, c. 1890, Museum Victoria collection, MM 109758

Second, and more interestingly, social movements themselves generate markets internally. Often this takes the form of collective action aimed at solving common needs of movement members. This has a long history in Australia. The earliest coffee shops (‘coffee palaces’) were set up by the temperance movement to provide members places to socialise away from intoxicants. The (now politically-incorrect) Australian Natives’ Association (1872-1993) did not simply advocate for self-government, but as a mutual aid society, provided a range of health and insurance products to members.

 

Honour Board, Australian Natives Association, Victoria, date unknown, Museum Victoria collection, SH 880499
Honour Board, Australian Natives Association, Victoria, date unknown, Museum Victoria collection, SH 880499

Free Range Eggs. Social Movement or Market?
In the area of animal advocacy in Australia, markets have emerged from the work of activists and activist organisations. Animal Liberation NSW, established in 1976, worked to develop a market and supply chain for free-range eggs in the 1980s, long before major companies saw a demand for high-welfare foods. The provision of vegetarian and vegan groceries and other products, remains the domain of small speciality stores around Australia. These small commercial operations commonly come from within the movement, and have slowly taken over this role from various non-profit representative and advocacy organisations that once provided these speciality imports for the membership. Often these companies retain their activist connections in a way that purely commercial firms are often uncomfortable or too risk adverse to do.

The relationship between markets and movements is complex and contestable. Marketisation can be the type of mainstream acceptance that negates the radical challenge associated with the way social movement’s develop a counter-narrative to the mainstream, their “special idiom for social reality”. It can be seen as the quintessential sell-out. On the other hand, for social movements that aim to achieve social transformation, rather than remain a sub-cultural counter-public, marketisation may be the ultimate form of success.

Post by Peter Chen, University of Sydney
Dr Peter John Chen is based at the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney. He researches and teaches Australian politics, media politics and social movements, and is the author of Australian Politics in a Digital Age (ANU Press, 2013) and Animal Protection Politics in Australia (University of Sydney Press, 2016).

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