Protest movements in Australia

Issue 

Power and Protest: Movements for Social Change in Australian Society
By Verity Burgmann
Allen and Unwin. 302 pp. $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Vannessa Hearman

Verity Burgmann, co-editor of the four volume A People's History of Australia (1988), combines an extensive account of the protest movements in Australia since the late '60s and an analysis of recent theories on the new social movements.

The debate surrounding those theories is premised on rigid categorising of "new social movements", as distinct from the old labour movement. The new social movements are commonly those which "express individual and individualised needs", contesting power structures "existing outside workplace relations".

These movements comprise middle-class, white collar workers and generally do not aspire to state power. Examples cited are the women's and the peace movements, among others.

New social movement theorists such as Alain Touraine and Jurgen Habermas seem to premise their findings on the notion that we are now living in a post-industrial society, in which the conflict between capital and labour no longer dominates. Rather "the new conflict is between the structures of economic and political decision-making and those who are reduced to dependent participation" (Touraine).

The theorists also suggest that the interests of the labour movement and the new social movements may even conflict.

Burgmann rightly challenges these theories as not being grounded in the reality for the masses of people — claims that we are now living in post-industrial society, where production processes have become less exploitative and there is the potential for industrial democracy for workers, are simply false, especially in the light of the current intensified attacks on working conditions.

The demarcation between the new and old social movements can be dangerous, as well as limiting. Despite Burgmann's refutations of the latest academic fallacies, she seems to be confined by these categorisations, which limits her analysis somewhat.

In her conclusion she argues the need of the new social movements to connect with the labour movement, because ultimately the working class are those with "an ability to mobilise, and harness real power rather than mere influence".

Yet we need to challenge the view that there is such a clear-cut distinction between the two movements. These new social movements did not just spring up in the postwar period, but have a historical continuity. There is also an overlapping of membership in both the old and new social movements. Burgmann argues that the two should relate to each other and cooperate, yet does not go far enough in countering stereotypical views of the two movements. The old labour movement and Marxists in general are shown to approach social questions from a class-based (read economistic, workerist) analysis only.

In the ensuing pages, however, Burgmann writes a very readable and extensive account of the women's, gay and lesbian, peace, green and land rights movements in the last 30 years. This is an ambitious work, covering a broad political landscape, charting the rise and downturn of the social movements from the explosive '60s through to the '80s.

This is an interesting and accessible guide to and analysis of a heritage of struggle. The work is detailed and well researched and shows a knowledgeable author coming from a politically sympathetic perspective.

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