nick_owen_smaller_sqPlease send me a message.

Name: (required)

Email address: (required)


Other People’s Struggles



My new book, Other People’s Struggles: Outsiders in Social Movements will be coming out this summer. It’s being published by Oxford University Press, and the publication date is 27 June in the United States of America and 5 September in the U.K.

“The distinction between conscience and beneficiary constituents has been well known to social movement scholars since McCarthy and Zald first proposed it nearly 50 years ago.  But until now no one has ever moved much beyond the distinction to tell us why we should care about it.  With Other People’s Struggles, Nicholas Owen has done just that, offering a compelling theory of the variable presence of ‘outsiders’ in movements and the impact they have on those struggles.”

Doug McAdam

Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology, Stanford University.

More details here


Read More

Other People’s Struggles

Other People’s Struggles has been my main research project over the last three years. It is an attempt to answer a question in the literature on social movements which has not been much asked, or well answered. Why and when do ‘outsiders’ participate in social movements from which they do not obviously stand to benefit? Why and when is their participation welcome to those who do stand to benefit , and why and when is it not?

Social movement theory terms such outsiders conscience constituents. They are thought to be important because they sometimes help to get social movements started when the beneficiaries are unable to co-operate sufficiently to achieve their goal. This lack of co-operation is quite common, because even sharing an interest with other beneficiaries is not always sufficient to motivate participation. A rational, self-interested beneficiary will ask herself not only what the goal is worth to her, but how far her own participation is a necessary condition of achieving it. It may be that she can take a free ride on others’ participation, and secure the goal without needing to do anything herself. Conscience constituents, self-propelled by their own consciences, can be a useful stimulus for collective action. Acting as unpaid entrepreneurs they can help latent movements get started or grow, by providing the initial confidence or organisation to allow rational self-interest to promote co-operation.

There are several problems with the conscience constituent theory. The motivation of the conscience constituent is under-analysed. In using the term ‘conscience’, a distinct motive is implied. But the definition itself is constructed in terms of expected outcomes rather than motivations. The contribution of the conscience constituent is also treated as a useful source of free energy, without considering where it comes from, or what costs it creates. There are, however, many considerations that might motivate non-beneficiaries to act in others’ interests, and they cannot all be boiled down to conscience without distortion. Conscience itself is a complex motivation, and relying on it can be costly for social movements. The conscience constituent is also only really suitable for analysing social movements which aim at securing some well-defined external change, rather than those which aim to articulate new identities, or to develop capacities among the activists themselves. It has therefore become a rather out-of-date concept.



In chapter 1, I consider the account given of outsiders in existing social movement theory. I provide a critical account of the theory of the conscience constituent. I develop a new definition, based on motivations rather than expected outcomes, renaming the conscience constituent as the adherent: someone motivated to participate in social movement in order that others should benefit. The adherent can be contrasted with the constituent, who is motivated to participate by standing to benefit herself.



In chapter 2, I provide a critical account of the theory of the conscience constituent. I develop a new definition, based on motivations rather than expected outcomes, renaming the conscience constituent as the adherent: someone motivated to participate in social movement in order that others should benefit. The adherent can be contrasted with the constituent, who is motivated to participate by standing to benefit herself.

I also distinguish between four orientations – the outward, expressive, empowement and solidarity orientations. Social movements are not only oriented to power: that is, to the pursuit of already-formed – or crystallized – interests. They are also concerned with expressing historically submerged identities and unappreciated needs, and with empowering people who have been denied autonomy to act for themselves. I predict that the value of the adherent will vary according to the orientation of the movement’s work, as well as the movement’s ambition, by which I mean the extent of the changes that would constitute success for it.



In chapter 3, I turn to the question of motivations. How and why are adherents motivated to participate in other people’s struggles? I explore the different motivations that have been proposed to explain altruistic behaviour – including rational self-interest, moral obligations and social norms – and ask which of them are plausible explanations of the motivations of adherents, and how they are distinct from the motivations of the constituents. I also offer my own account of what motivates adherents, dominated by self-owned moral obligations to others and disjoint norms of service. This is what, for the conscience constituent, conscience is. Having distinguished between participants on the basis of motivation, I make some predictions concerning how they will respectively behave. Does it matter that some participants are motivated in one way – as beneficiaries – and others by conscience (and other ways)? In what types of work might it matter? And what sorts of problems might it create?



In chapter 4, I provide some worked historical examples to provide an initial exposition of the theoretical arguments so far. I look at social movements in the long nineteenth century. Using the distinctions made concerning motivation in chapter 2, I distinguish between causes (made of of activists motivated by disjoint norms) and combinations (made up of activists motivated by conjoint norms). I use this framework to show why the place of ‘outsiders’ (now renamed adherents) differed between the metropolitan anti-slavery movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Chartists of the mid nineteenth century, and poverty relief work in the Victorian slums in the late nineteenth century.

In the second section of the book (chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8), I return to theory to set out the dilemmas that adherent participation might provoke in social movements. I think that these dilemmas vary according to the orientation of the work a social movement (or a group within it) is undertaking. Hence there are four chapters, each dealing with the dilemmas in a single orientation. Each orientation, I argue, has its own characteristic set of dilemmas. When neglected interests are at issue, the dilemmas concern accountability. When the denial of self-expression is at issue, the dilemmas concern authenticity. When the issue is empowerment, the dilemmas concern agency. And when the issue is solidarity, the dilemmas concern belonging.




In chapter 5, I consider the dilemmas that arise in the outward orientation, when movements seek to define and pursue interests. The key difference lies between constituents who define and pursue their own interests, adherents, who define and pursue the interests of others. I focus especially on the work of representation, and the accompanying dilemma of accountability. I argue that adherents, as supposedly disinterested non-beneficiaries, can be effective as representatives, but that they may also be harder to trust. I distinguish between three types of adherent – the advocate, the champion and the ally – in terms of their degree of independence of those they represent and their exposure to risk. The chapter also considers the difficulties that may arise when a movement is defining its interests. There is a risk that the ability of the adherent to frame the movement’s demands – in certain ways an asset – can be a liability if it simplifies or misrepresents an emerging demand. Whether this is so or not, I argue, depends on how crystallized the interests are, and on the ambition of the movement.




In chapter 6, I turn to work in the expressive orientation, which concerns the articulation and expression of needs, identities and desires. The difference here lies between constituents, who express their own identities, and adherents who help to express the identities of others. The dilemma here is one of authenticity, and it turns on questions of provenance: how far the identity is grounded in shared and understood experiences. When the identity is expressed in terms of needs and experiences which she shares and understands, and which have already helped to secure her own identity, the adherent may be well placed to help. When they are are unshared, she is a less possible and less useful ally. In this chapter, I also consider the dilemmas of closed identity work, in which constituents isolate themselves to secure their identities; and the difficulties of attempts by adherents to ‘cross over’ to seek to share the identities of the constituents.




In chapter 7, I examine the empowerment orientation, in which movements work on themselves, developing their capacities as activists. I argue that the adherent can help to empower others, but empowerment is ultimately non-transferable. No one can be empowered vicariously, i.e. on their behalf. Empowerment is also persishable: it must end or fail. Whether adherents can help empower others turns on whether the capabilities the constituents seek are ones that they do not themselves possess (and others do); or, more ambitiously, ones they already have but have not yet discovered; and on whether they are willing to acquire such capabilities passively – as pupils, in other words – rather than, more ambitiously, through interactive discussion between teacher and taught.




In chapter 8, I explore the dilemmas that arise in solidarity work aimed at enhancing group cohesion. I consider first whether constituents and adherents can share prefigurative work, aimed at ‘living the change they seek’; and secondly whether they can derive the same emotional satisfaction from the life of the social movement. This chapter also offers an important modification of contemporary theory concerning emotions in social movements. Such theory proposes that people are motivated into collective action by emotions as well as by rational calculation. The chapter argues that, in addition, the emotions that motivate the conscience constituent differ from those that motivate the beneficiary constituent. They include, for example, guilt, indignation, pity, pangs of conscience and the altruistic ‘warm glow’. These disjoint emotions – felt for or in relation to others – are hard to share with those fighting a battle on their own account, whose own emotions – hurt, anger, pride – shared conjointly with each other, are hard to share with the conscience constituents. This, it is argued, may also impede solidarity within the movement.



In the last four chapters of the book, I look at the place of the adherent today. In chapter 9, I try to sum up the findings of the historical case studies by looking at the long-run changes, and making a conjecture about the trajectory they indicate from the beginnings of modern social movements to the late modern present day. This takes the form of a claim that the adherent now ‘has to be what he cannot be’. I explain the underlying changes that have brought about this paradoxical state of affairs.



In chapter 10, I define and assess five approaches to address the late modern dilemma described in chapter 9, drawn from contemporary social and critical theories. These involve loosening the obligation to be what one cannot be; denying the impossibility of being what one cannot be, being it anyway; sharing incompleteness, and beginning from equality. The chapter argues that that each response has its merits, but none of them produces answers with which all movements can be content.



In chapter 11, I outline an emergent approach, which I term becoming- work, to consider whether the older dilemmas are changing shape, or even being solved. I define the approach, and explain how it alters the classic dilemmas of adherence set out in chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8. I also describe some contemporary and emerging examples of the approach, especially in alter-globalisation politics and queer politics, before concluding with some suggestions for future work on adherence.



In chapter 12, I summarise the arguments of the book, before concluding with some suggestions for future work on adherence.


Adherents, according to my argument, are motivated by disjoint moral obligations and norms of service. To judge whether and how the problem of the adherent varies, it therefore has to be examined empirically across a long historical period, and also in depth. The book is therefore supported by a series of historical case studies. Taken together, they constitute an historical account of the playing out of some of these dilemmas as they occurred in a particular historical location (Britain) over the last hundred and fifty years or so. The historical case studies are described here.


Some other pieces of writing – conference papers, blog posts and other short reflections – also consider adherence.

I have explored the question of whether adherents and constituents can share the same emotions here.

I have also written a short piece on a William Blake poem which forms a sort of preliminary, orienting journey in to understanding what motivates people to help in other people’s struggles.

Another piece, which comes at the end of the project rather than the start, concerns Oscar Wilde’s socialism, ambivalence and adherence.

I have also written several posts about the main concepts in the book, which are linked below.

This invisible text is there to sit on top of the background image! Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nulla aliquam laoreet risus, nec porttitor metus euismod eget. Vestibulum imperdiet dictum ultricies. Aenean in commodo dolor, aliquet pulvinar nulla. Sed sodales ut diam ac consectetur. Suspendisse non tempor odio, at malesuada tellus. Maecenas rutrum ornare risus, a convallis dui suscipit in. Nulla cursus lorem tellus, vel finibus diam molestie non.

Aliquam ac placerat neque. Pellentesque pellentesque tortor eu iaculis ultrices. Quisque et porta libero. Integer venenatis mi id mollis ultricies. Etiam id nisi ac nunc elementum accumsan id eu felis. Pellentesque ac mauris id risus vulputate faucibus. Sed sit amet nibh ut odio aliquam viverra id sit amet metus. Integer molestie, ante vitae posuere gravida, sapien enim imperdiet turpis, a viverra sapien quam quis ipsum. Fusce accumsan ultricies libero et placerat. Sed ex arcu, luctus eu commodo sit amet, iaculis nec magna. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Donec in sapien id dolor cursus mollis.

Nunc lectus orci, maximus at viverra at, mollis vel lectus. Nulla efficitur euismod nulla, ac blandit neque vulputate quis. Morbi aliquam id turpis quis ultrices. Proin rhoncus feugiat neque, ut fringilla dui suscipit non. Mauris lobortis id enim vel dapibus. Maecenas et facilisis mauris. Suspendisse auctor mi dolor, ut suscipit metus consequat sit amet.

Praesent ornare condimentum erat et pretium. Nullam ex elit, ornare sagittis consectetur ut, dignissim in purus. Proin eu sagittis erat. Curabitur vel mauris id velit rhoncus semper convallis dictum lectus.

This invisible text is there to sit on top of the background image! Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nulla aliquam laoreet risus, nec porttitor metus euismod eget. Vestibulum imperdiet dictum ultricies. Aenean in commodo dolor, aliquet pulvinar nulla. Sed sodales ut diam ac consectetur. Suspendisse non tempor odio, at malesuada tellus. Maecenas rutrum ornare risus, a convallis dui suscipit in. Nulla cursus lorem tellus, vel finibus diam molestie non.

Praesent ornare condimentum erat et pretium. Nullam ex elit, ornare sagittis consectetur ut, dignissim in purus. Proin eu sagittis erat. Curabitur vel mauris id velit rhoncus semper convallis dictum lectus.

Read More

Other People’s Struggles
Historical Cases


My book Other People’s Struggles presented a theory of adherence illustrated with historical cases. But there was not sufficient space to provide the cases in detail, and to do so would have been distracting. However, it is part of my theoretical argument that the detail matters, because adherence involves a complex and subtle set of relationships.

Adherents, according to my argument in Other People’s Struggles, are motivated by disjoint moral obligations and norms of service to others. To judge whether and how the problem of the adherent varies, it therefore has to be examined empirically across a long historical period, and also in depth. The motivations of conscience are not eternal truths, as religion sometimes suggests. Nor are they reducible to biological concern for others, as the psychological experimenters tell us. Biology only defines the lowest baseline for conscience. Above this baseline, which is to say in every respect that matters for understanding how people behave politically, conscience is the product of historical circumstances and contingencies. It has its own history and genealogy. What conscience demands of people (or they demand of themselves) varies across time, because it is neither the consequence of transcendental values nor biological composition, but of changing ideas, social expectations and norms.

For this reason, I studied adherence through a series of six cases which together comprise an historical account of the playing out of the dilemma of adherence as it occurred in a particular historical location (Britain) over the last hundred and fifty years or so. In each case they were also intended to address an important historical question, in order to show what we can gain in understanding by applying my theory. They were structured as a series of pairs, placed in an overlapping chronological sequence.


The first two case studies examine two dilemmas concerning adherents and class. Representation and the professional classes concerns a dilemma of representation, specifically the question of whether the labour interest could be satisfactorily represented in the legislature by members of other social classes. The specific historical puzzle here concerns why it has sometimes (but not always) been possible for workers to be represented in Parliament by middle class Labour MPs. My main source material is an original database of Labour MPs from the earliest examples in the late nineteenth century to the 1945 election, which I originally developed for other work and have now expanded. The data suggests several unfamiliar shifts in the representative basis of the Labour Party, which my theory of adherence helps to explain.


The search for socialist fellowship examines work in a different orientation. It concerns the problem of building socialist fellowship among recruits from different social classes. What sort of changes do middle class people need to make to the way they live when they participate in workers’ movements? This question was the subject of a vigorous but forgotten debate among British socialists in the 1880s. Some thought everything ought to change, and others nothing. I use the articles, correspondence and other writings of Edward Carpenter, William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and others to set out the terms of this debate, and to answer the specific historical puzzle of this chapter: why people who agreed on so much else differed so widely on the question of social fellowship. I also explore the consequences of this unresolved question for British socialism.


Two further cases concern adherents and gender. The historical puzzle I address concerns why male sympathisers were readily mobilised in the Edwardian women’s suffrage movement, but demobilised in the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s.

In Beyond the vote: men and feminism before 1914, I examine the women’s movement before the First World War. The presence of men in the movement has been very capably studied already, but only in the respect in which they were arguably least problematic, as advocates of votes for women. However, the women’s movement was not merely a campaign for the vote, but was also concerned with issues of identity and belonging. My chapter examines the role of men in these other types of work to see whether the conclusions that have been reached concerning their work for the vote apply there too. My source material is a journal called The Freewoman – which is often used to identify the claims and counter-claims of early twentieth century British feminism. Some of the contributors were men, but no one has asked how their views differed from those of women. I analyse the debates across a number of issues, including marriage, motherhood, women’s employment and sex, to see where the differences lay. The conclusions help to confirm the importance of orientation, as well as long-run historical change in determining the possibilities for adherence.


Men and the demands of women’s liberation looks at the women’s movement in a much later period – the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s – and attempts to explain whether and why the place of men there was seemingly so very different. One possibility is that men did not believe in the women’s demands. In this case study, I test that theory using original polling data from British public opinion surveys from the 1960s to the 1980s. For each of the six demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement, I have identified a set of polling questions, obtained the data and split the sample into men and women. I have analysed men and women’s responses to see how and where they differ. The results are complex, but on many of the demands, men were no less ‘feminist’ than women and on some they were more so. The reasons for their absence from the movement therefore lie elsewhere, and the chapter explores what these might be.


Another pair of cases examine movements concerned with the place of outsiders in other people’s struggles overseas. In Problems of vicarious anti-imperialism I examine adherent support for the anti-colonial movement. Why did some Indian anti-colonial activists seek out the help of British supporters, but others reject such help even when it was offered and potentially useful to them? Historians of British anti-colonialism have tended to treat all such help as welcome, the only puzzle being why there was so little of it. But no one has examined the value that the colonised themselves placed on help from those among their colonisers, or the dilemmas which such help created for them. I distinguish between four distinct groups in the Indian anti-colonial movement: British Indians, extremists, networkers and Gandhian satyagrahis, and explain why and with what consequences they differed over the value of the adherent.


In this case study concerned with solidarity in the global justice movement, I look at the metamorphosis of the anti-colonial movement into contemporary movements for the pursuit of global justice. The final case study deals with the contemporary Global Justice Movement, and especially in the alter-globalization movement. How is solidarity built in a movement which bring together people from so many countries, and from such diverse social backgrounds? I consider and reject both the theory that the activists come from similarly ‘precarious’ social locations, and the theory that they endorse shared framings of the problems of global justice.

I propose instead that solidarity is secured according to the concepts I have developed to explain adherence: the orientation and ambition of the work. Solidarity rests neither on shared precariousness, nor a common framing of the struggle, but on conjoint processes or practices which may or may not deliver usable frames. I also look at the new theorisations of the question of adherence that the alter-globalization movement is developing. I focus especially on the two most important for my theme: first, the possibility of the re-emergence of disjointness in the guise of an avant-garde; and secondly, the maintenance of collective belonging and commitment in a movement in which intense personal participation is so strong a motivating force.

This invisible text is there to sit on top of the background image! Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nulla aliquam laoreet risus, nec porttitor metus euismod eget. Vestibulum imperdiet dictum ultricies. Aenean in commodo dolor, aliquet pulvinar nulla. Sed sodales ut diam ac consectetur. Suspendisse non tempor odio, at malesuada tellus. Maecenas rutrum ornare risus, a convallis dui suscipit in. Nulla cursus lorem tellus, vel finibus diam molestie non.

Aliquam ac placerat neque. Pellentesque pellentesque tortor eu iaculis ultrices. Quisque et porta libero. Integer venenatis mi id mollis ultricies. Etiam id nisi ac nunc elementum accumsan id eu felis. Pellentesque ac mauris id risus vulputate faucibus. Sed sit amet nibh ut odio aliquam viverra id sit amet metus. Integer molestie, ante vitae posuere gravida, sapien enim imperdiet turpis, a viverra sapien quam quis ipsum. Fusce accumsan ultricies libero et placerat. Sed ex arcu, luctus eu commodo sit amet, iaculis nec magna. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Donec in sapien id dolor cursus mollis.

Nunc lectus orci, maximus at viverra at, mollis vel lectus. Nulla efficitur euismod nulla, ac blandit neque vulputate quis. Morbi aliquam id turpis quis ultrices. Proin rhoncus feugiat neque, ut fringilla dui suscipit non. Mauris lobortis id enim vel dapibus. Maecenas et facilisis mauris. Suspendisse auctor mi dolor, ut suscipit metus consequat sit amet.

Praesent ornare condimentum erat et pretium. Nullam ex elit, ornare sagittis consectetur ut, dignissim in purus. Proin eu sagittis erat. Curabitur vel mauris id velit rhoncus semper convallis dictum lectus.

This invisible text is there to sit on top of the background image! Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nulla aliquam laoreet risus, nec porttitor metus euismod eget. Vestibulum imperdiet dictum ultricies. Aenean in commodo dolor, aliquet pulvinar nulla. Sed sodales ut diam ac consectetur. Suspendisse non tempor odio, at malesuada tellus. Maecenas rutrum ornare risus, a convallis dui suscipit in. Nulla cursus lorem tellus, vel finibus diam molestie non.

Praesent ornare condimentum erat et pretium. Nullam ex elit, ornare sagittis consectetur ut, dignissim in purus. Proin eu sagittis erat. Curabitur vel mauris id velit rhoncus semper convallis dictum lectus.

Praesent ornare condimentum erat et pretium. Nullam ex elit, ornare sagittis consectetur ut, dignissim in purus. Proin eu sagittis erat. Curabitur vel mauris id velit rhoncus semper convallis dictum lectus.

Praesent ornare condimentum erat et pretium. Nullam ex elit, ornare sagittis consectetur ut, dignissim in purus. Proin eu sagittis erat. Curabitur vel mauris id velit rhoncus semper convallis dictum lectus.

Read More

Beyond the Vote: Men and Feminism before 1914

The Edwardian women’s movement was several campaigns against the multiple subordinations of women, gathered up and concentrated on the winning of the vote. In this paper, part of my research project on Other People’s Struggles, I argue that the problem of men varied among these campaigns. It was least problematic where it has been most studied: in the demand for the vote itself. Here the demand was about as crystallized as a demand could be. Whatever their differences over methods and strategy, the women’s suffrage societies agreed that their goal was to remove the sex disability in the franchise, and to secure the same voting rights for women as men presently enjoyed, or might enjoy in the future. The demand for the vote was also a demand for something which many men, though not all, already had. It was justified through the denial that women were disqualified by difference from equal citizenship with men. There was therefore no principled reason why men should not advocate such a reform themselves. Women’s suffrage could be the ‘common cause’ of women and men. This, indeed, was how the demand was phrased by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) formed in 1897, an organisation which admitted men as members and even as officers.

However, with respect to work in other orientations, the presence of men could be more complicated. One set of difficulties arose with respect to those forms of work which I describe in Other People’s Struggles as concerned not so much with the pursuit of interests, as with the empowerment of constituents as autonomous political actors. The women’s suffrage movement also wanted to define women as makers of their own fate. Campaigns in which men fought chivalrously on behalf of the ‘weaker sex’ were therefore bound to be problematic. As militancy came to define differences between women campaigning for the vote, these considerations expressed themselves in splits. In 1907, the men close to the NUWSS separated themselves out into an auxiliary support group: the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (MLWS). The militant suffrage organisations – both the Women’s Social and Political Union (1903) and the breakaway Women’s Freedom League (1907) – were women-only organisations.

Such choices resulted, however, not from militancy per se, where men’s physical assistance was arguably potentially useful, but from the feminist need for women to act alone and on their own behalf. The binding solidarities of the militant movements were created in women-only spaces, such as the demonstrations, where the sexes marched under separate banners, and in the women’s prisons, rather than in joint meetings with men. Men who supported militancy organised themselves into the Men’s Political Union (MPU). They sometimes undertook militant actions themselves, but their doing so was appreciated but also awkward. Indeed, I have suggested elsewhere that women militants employed an emotional strategy designed not only to draw women together, but also to upset and ‘unman’ those male supporters who put off women’s demands with imperturbability, by denying them the opportunity to make a chivalrous response to the suffering of women.

My subject in this paper is work in another orientation: that which I defined in chapter 1 as the expressive orientation. Women suffragists did not only demand what the men had, only for the reasons for which they had it. As Sandra Stanley Holton has suggested, suffragists also ‘emphasised women’s right to vote in terms of their specific social mission arising from their innate and distinct natures’. They ‘did not present feminist goals in terms of equivalence with men but in terms of an autonomously created system of values derived from women’s experience’. Men might endorse such arguments, but they could only do so on the basis of values and identities which belonged to others. Many suffragists also held that the vote alone would be insufficient to secure women’s freedom. Other things needed to change too. New feminist perspectives were needed on questions such as marriage, motherhood, the family, educational and working opportunities, sexuality and intimate relationships between men and women. This re-envisioning of women’s desires and identities has also been much studied, but there is little discussion over the question of whether there was any place for men in it.


In this paper, I therefore explore the variety of Edwardian male responses to this new feminism in more detail. In his account of crises of masculinity in the post-bellum USA, Michael Kimmel argues that male responses to the new assertiveness of women took three forms: an ‘anti-feminist’ backlash against the ‘new women’, movements for ‘male supremacy’, and male support for feminism. A similar pattern can be discerned in Britain, but reads a little differently. The difference between the first two responses – the misogyny and the affirmative masculinism – was often little more than a difference of emphasis and audience. The same individuals might offer each response in different settings, which is perhaps unsurprising if gender identities are formed relationally. These first two responses have also been well studied already, whether their political expression in ‘anti-suffragism’ or their social and cultural expressions in the retreat from women and domesticity to the safer homosocial settings of the gentlemen’s clubs, the army, the boys’ public schools and the imperial hinterlands. Literary scholars and cultural critics have also examined the reaffirmation of sexual difference and hardening of borders and masculine identities, seen above all in the exclusion of male homosexuality.


The subject in this paper is the third, neglected category of response – ‘male support for feminism’ – a response neither of hostility nor retreat, but of engaged support. The male suffragists have been studied, but rather as heroic exceptions, more thoughtful, more advanced, or somehow exempted from the crises of masculinity that the women’s movement provoked in its male opponents. Little has been said about the relational fracture within their support: the consequence of the way that the affirmation of women’s changing identities had potentially disturbing implications for male identities too. Here I aim to examine how such ‘male feminists’ responded to the wider set of issues beyond the vote.

The primary source material I use here is a remarkable series of Edwardian feminist debates that took place in the journal THE FREEWOMAN (1911-12), which explored many of the questions beyond the vote. The journal is quite familiar to historians of Edwardian feminism. But it has seldom been remarked that a large number of contributions came from men. For a set of issues, therefore – including marriage, motherhood, family, prostitution, health, and sex – I try to identify areas of convergence and divergence, overlaps, and gaps between the male and female contributors. I then examine how these patterns expressed themselves in alliances and movements, focusing on one area in detail: men’s sexuality.

As ever, if you would like to read this paper in draft, please click on the message icon to the right and send me a message. The chapter is one of several case studies for my current research project Other People’s Struggles which examines whether, why, when and how problems arise when ‘outsiders’ or ‘non-beneficiaries’ participate in social movements.


Read More

Other People’s Struggles
Conclusions and future work


Read More


Emotions, we learn from recent social movement theory, bind social movements together.

In my research project Other People’s Struggles, I differentiate between constituents, whose participation is motivated by standing to benefit themselves if the movement achieves its goal; and adherents, who participate despite not being motivated as beneficiaries.

So one important question to consider is whether constituents and adherents are bound together by emotion, or whether their emotional registers differ. Here are a few ways – there are more in the longer version of this paper – in which they might be thought to differ.

1. Consider adherents and constituents in a movement concerned with expressive work. There are, let us suppose, constituents who share a well-established identity, grounded in certain common experiences, and adherents who do not. The constituents will tend to think in the indicative mode (‘I am, I will be, I was’). Adherents, in such a case, lack the relevant identity and experiences. They will, at most, be able to think in the potential mode (‘I can be, I may be, I might have been’).

The emotional registers of those thinking in the indicative mode will differ from those thinking in the potential mode. There are, for example, the differences between the emotions associated with suffering and those associated with the contemplation of suffering. To feel for someone as they suffer is not exactly the same as to share their feeling as they suffer. As Adam Smith argued in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, imaginative sympathy for suffering is briefer, more intermittent and less acute than suffering itself. ‘Mankind’, he wrote, ‘though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another, that degree of passion which naturally animates the person principally concerned’.

2. The emotions experienced by adherents and constituents may vary not just in intensity or duration, but also in fundamental character. We can distinguish, for example, between indignation (a negative belief concerning the unjust subordination of others) and resentment (a negative belief concerning the unjust subordination of oneself or one’s own social group).

3. Social psychology has distinguished experimentally between moral outrage, triggered when one’s moral standard is violated; personal anger, felt when one’s own interests are thwarted; and empathic anger, felt when the interests of someone one cares for are thwarted. It seems likely that participants in social movements will experience a mixture of all these feelings, but we might expect that the feelings of constituents would contain a larger share of anger and resentment, and those of adherents a greater share of indignation and moral outrage.

4. There are also, among adherents thinking in the potential mode, important differences between someone who thinks in the potential present tense, ‘I can be a constituent (e.g. here and now)’, one who thinks in the potential future tense, ‘I may be a constituent (e.g. in the foreseeable future)’, and one who thinks in the potential past-perfect tense, ‘I might have been a constituent (e.g. had my life begun differently)’. In the first case, the adherent is very close to thinking and feeling as a constituent. The norm of reciprocity may be sufficient to motivate her to help and the consequent emotions may be those of sympathy and other strong forms of fellow-feeling. The adherent who thinks in the potential-future tense may also feel the same fears, anger and so on as the constituent, but diluted by the likelihood that she will experience the same state in the future. The adherent thinking in the potential past-perfect tense is likelier to experience pity, the more distant and distancing emotion in which ‘one holds oneself apart from the afflicted person and from their suffering, thinking of it as something that defines the person as fundamentally different from oneself’. Pity, unlike sympathy, is an emotion that can only be felt for those one regards as positionally, rather than just fortuitously, worse off. We feel sympathy for those whose experiences we think it possible or likely we might share, as they may do for us. Pity, though, is disjoint. We feel it for people whose shoes we do not expect to be in. It can even be accompanied by a peculiar sense of relief or pleasure that we are not in their shoes. The relevant norm for an adherent moved by pity is likely to be the disjoint norm of service.

5. Adherents may feel compassion but this also has its own difficulties. Hannah Arendt suggested that there can be ‘compassion’ between the sufferer and the sympathizer, in which the sympathizer is so affected by the plight of the sufferer that she experiences something very similar herself. Compassion, she proposes, is ‘to be stricken with the suffering of someone else as though it were contagious’. But such compassion is essentially private. Its ‘curious muteness or, at least, awkwardness with words’ is the sign of its authenticity. As soon as an attempt is made to speak of suffering in public, the voices necessarily diverge. Pity – ‘to be sorry without being touched in the flesh’ – expresses itself through a sort of ventriloquism, and thereby distances itself from inarticulate ‘co-feeling’ or compassion. The ‘eloquence’ of pity is the sign that it is not speaking for itself, and also grounds for suspicion, for such depersonalized pity is the language of assumed virtue, invoked by revolutionaries ever since the French Revolution to justify their actions.

6. If pity is eloquent but too distant, and compassion silences us, then we are left with empathy. This implies ‘being with’ the sufferer in her suffering, but not necessarily feeling the same thing. For Martha Nussbaum, it consists in an ‘imaginative reconstruction of the experience of the sufferer’, combined with a sense of distinctness, if not necessarily distance, from him. We can feel something for those whose sufferings we do not share because we have all experienced some suffering in life and probably expect to do so again. When we empathize we share common feelings with others, even if their suffering is much greater or of a different character. This may all reduce the gap between constituent and adherent, but a gap remains and there are perhaps dangers in trying to reduce it to nothing in the hope of conjointness. As we noted in the last chapter, at least some constituents are likely to feel that attempts to share what they feel is intrusive and disrespectful. It is to attempt to share what cannot be shared.

7. These differences of exposure to suffering mark one important distinction between the emotional registers of constituent and adherent. But there are other disjointnesses to consider too. For example, some emotions are prompted by people’s capacity to alter their own situation. Constituents may not just be typically angrier and more resentful. They may also experience ressentiment, the form of anger that emerges specifically from a position of powerlessness, sometimes compounded by the inability to express this anger. By contrast, adherents may not feel disempowered at all. Their strong sense of personal efficacy may be precisely what has drawn them to other people’s struggles. If so, they will not feel ressentiment, though they may feel indignation at the disempowerment of others.

8. Constituents may feel fear or uncertainty as they challenge the existing order; where adherents, placed more securely, often do not. More positively, constituents may be able to experience pride from what they do to achieve their own empowerment, through transcending their own subordination. Adherents may be proud of what they themselves do too: indeed, adherents may feel pride precisely from having adhered to other people’s struggles. But they cannot share this pride with the constituents; and for the achievements of the constituents, they cannot feel pride at all, but only admiration.

9. A further register of emotion concerns culpability. An actor who feels responsible for injustice may experience feelings of shame and guilt. Within this register, there are two dimensions to consider. The first is the degree to which personal culpability is felt for an injustice. If adherents and constituents agree that the injustice is the fault of a third party or a common enemy, they may share the same feelings about culpability. But if they disagree on the degree to which the adherents, or the groups to which they belong or with which they maintain links, are complicit in the injustice, differences of feeling may result. ‘Social conscience’ is the term usually used to describe the emotion of guilt-without-personal-culpability. It is felt when those with whom one is associated are believed culpable for a wrong. It is not unusual for constituents to feel it is insufficient, or that its relief is not their affair, or, simply that it is not an emotion they can share.

10. The second dimension of culpability concerns the identity of those who are entitled to judge. Shame is characteristically felt as a consequence of the contempt of others at the violation of a social norm, and guilt as a consequence of a violation of one’s own moral or quasi-moral norms. Shame is therefore often believed to be the more ‘social’ emotion, resting on others’ opinions and our internalization of them; and guilt the more ‘individual’ emotion, a product of the reflective self. An adherent who accepts that she is herself responsible for injustice to members of a subordinated group may therefore feel guilty about it as a breach of her own moral code. But her guilty emotions are prompted by her judgment of herself as having unjustly harmed them, rather than by any judgment of theirs. She will feel shame only if she experiences, and feels to be valid, the contempt of others.

11. Shame arguably has the greater potential to bond adherents and constituents, because it derives from communal judgments based on shared conceptions of what is shameworthy. As Bernard Williams observes, in a shame culture, people share a common conception of honour, and hence the same sentiments when the honour of any one of them is violated. Guilt can ‘direct one towards those who have been wronged or damaged, and demand reparation in the name, simply, of what has happened to them’. But only shame, because it ‘embodies conceptions of what one is and how one relates to others’, can ‘help one to understand one’s relationship to those happenings, or to rebuild the self that has done those things and the world in which that self has to live’. For shame to do so, however, requires the adherent to accept that others are not only right to condemn her, but also entitled to do so. The ‘other’ who shames me has to be someone, real or imaginary, whom I respect. The unchivalrous knight is made to feel shame by other knights, not unentitled peasants whom he doesn’t respect. If constituents are not included among those so respected, it seems quite possible that they will feel resentment or direct their anger at the adherent.

12. Sympathy, empathic anger and indignation, finally, are qualified by cognitive knowledge of the cause of the other’s suffering, thwarted interest, or subordination, and a judgment as to whether or not it is deserved. Full sympathy, Adam Smith suggests, arises only when we approve of the passions of the other person. We do not readily sympathize with someone whose suffering was deserved, even if we can fully imagine what the suffering is like. We have to judge whether the other person is an appropriate object of our sympathy. For someone who has brought their suffering on themselves, we can feel some emotion, such as a kind of cold pity, but not the same emotion as we feel when we do not believe this to be so. This judgment introduces a further asymmetry into the relationship between constituent and adherent. Judgment places the adherent at a critical distance, sufficient to judge the reasonableness of the constituent’s feelings, but not vice versa. In short, these asymmetric judgments introduce disjointness into the movement, not the conjointness needed for solidarity.

13. Why should it matter if constituents and adherents do not feel quite the same way? One reason is that emotions have also characteristic ‘action tendencies’. They are linked to specific urges or impulses to action, to end negative emotions and prolong positive ones. Differences of emotions may therefore not remain invisible but may be expressed outwardly. Sometimes these action tendencies can combine productively. The anger of the constituent and the indignation of the adherent, for example, may mix satisfactorily in retaliation against an offending third party. But other action tendencies may not be so easily combined, at least within a single organization. For example, the action tendency of shame is to seek forgiveness, but an adherent who demands this may be asking too much of constituents whose greater need is to express their anger. Constituents who experience fear may be reluctant to engage in confrontational actions that more securely placed adherents welcome. Sympathy and guilt will incline adherents to offer help, but the constituents’ desire to experience pride through self-reliance may incline them to refuse it. An adherent’s feeling of guilt is triggered by a breach of her moral code, which requires her to put things right with herself; whereas shame, triggered by a breach of a shared social norm, requires her to put things right interactively with other people. Adherents who act out of a sense of historical guilt are a case in point. It is one thing for them to take upon themselves voluntarily the obligation to make restitution, and quite another for them to be placed under such an obligation by a wider social code made in part by the victims of historical injustices. The former is a familiar, disjoint relationship, the latter a more conjoint social obligation.


Read More

Ambivalence and adherence

Like other socialists, Wilde rejected the disjointness of charitable philanthropy as degrading both to giver and recipient. But he also rejected the claim, made by socialists and philanthropists alike, that it was proper to give oneself over to the service of others. To be expected to live for others was ‘sordid’ because it risked the loss of one’s own chosen opportunities for self-development. The aim of life was the flourishing of the individual personality, which might occur in any number of ways, because people were so different. The problem with other socialists was that they prescribed ways one ought to behave towards others. Wilde feared the authoritarian violence of such collective expectations, and the deadening effect of conformity. True socialism, he argued, would welcome ‘many and multiform natures’. Each individual nature would help others not by trying to make them like itself, but ‘as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is’. In this respect the artist was exemplary, in resisting others’ demands for conformity, and insisting on the priority of her own flourishing.

Furthermore, the life of the artist – and even more the critic as artist – was not one of certainty but of ambivalence. The true critic was ‘ever … curious of new sensations and fresh points of view’. ‘He will not consent’, Wilde wrote, ‘to be the slave of his own opinions’. But the critic also knew that the truth was never simple. In ‘recognizing no position as final’ and that important truths were always a matter of contradictions, he could embrace contrary possibilities without losing himself in doing so. Ambivalence was neither indecision, nor mere posing, nor a failure to think. It followed from the twin requirements that we hold no position to be final, and that it is individual flourishing that matters most, even – or especially – when we engage with others. We are led to ambivalence because we feel the force of other views, but cannot, indeed must not, live primarily for others.

Wilde did not disdain other people’s causes, therefore, but could only embrace them with ambivalence. His attitude can be contrasted with the other Victorian socialists I examine elsewhere in Other People’s Struggles and in other writing on socialist fellowship.. He liked Edward Carpenter’s work, but could not share his desire to live without privilege. Wilde’s idea of prefiguration was not to sink to the condition of the lowest, but to live the life of cultivated leisure and self-fulfilment that everyone would live under socialism. The aim was not to give up what one was, but to realize it fully. Nor could Wilde have approved of the Webbs’ functional disjointness. It reduced the individual to a function: to what was merely useful to the socialist cause. Nor again could he have been a ‘heartless’ or ‘unsocial’ socialist like Shaw or Bax. Although he shared Shaw’s love of inverting bien pensant morality, he could not share Shaw’s certainties. And, of course, Wilde famously observed that the trouble with socialism was that it took up too many evenings. His evenings were – unlike those of William Morris – too busy to be filled up with socialist activism.

Indeed, Wilde’s ambivalence obliquely exposed the reservations the other socialists harboured concerning the demands of solidarity. Among the poor, he wrote in the Soul of Man under Socialism, ‘there is not grace of manner, or charm of speech, or civilization, or culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy in life’. Carpenter could not have written this, but it was, after all, quite close to what he had himself found in rural Derbyshire. These were the ambivalent feelings that had obliged him to reduce his circle to like-minded people. Morris could never have said that socialism made too many demands on the wealthy. But he privately felt it, and, as we saw in chapter 8, smothered it in vigorous activity and forced good fellowship. The Webbs too led split lives, confining their despair about achieving socialism through the workers to the privacy of the diary. But here Beatrice admitted what Oscar said openly: what on earth was the use of the lower orders if they could not set a better example to their social superiors? To a scientific Marxist like Bax, Wilde’s love of paradox amounted to ‘mere bizarrerie’ and the ‘decadence’ of a dying class ‘run mad’. For Wilde, however, the scientific propagandists’ insistence that the truth was simple if only people would listen – all their earnestness, logic, and ‘taking sides’ – was unpersuasive. It could never charm people as socialism might if only it ceased to insist on its own certainties.

Among the socialists of the 1880s, Shaw came closest to Wilde in pointing out other people’s contradictions to themselves and the world. But with regard to his own views, Shaw did not express much doubt. He blithely shrugged off ambivalence in favour of brazen certainty. In his plays the didacticism is never far below the surface, even when it is not pushed directly at the audience. For Wilde, suppressing or denying ambivalence never worked. Instead, he expressed it in his life, and also on the stage, the strongest literary form for ambivalence, as it is refracted into characters and the whirling staged conflicts between them. His writings are full of split identities and double lives, secrets and unmaskings, ghosts and hauntings. People who concealed what they were lived only half a life. If they declared themselves, they risked losing their whole lives. Only in a refusal to choose could they flourish.

In his own lifetime, Wilde’s approach to these questions was largely ignored by his fellow socialists. Indeed, I do not think he can be offered as a fine example now. Fine examples, too, belong to the past. A man notorious for his distrust of action must in any case be a perverse example for a social movement. But this is precisely my reason for introducing it at this stage of the argument. Perversity is what social movements – especially when they are doctrinaire, focused, closed – may need to consider again. Wilde might give us something to think about, especially if, as I have argued, no contemporary position can fully satisfy us. He offers another way to approach the problem we are left with: what should be done with the adherent self? What can be done by the adherent self?

One answer, which I also explore in Other People’s Struggles – is that of becoming-. This, however, is not Wilde’s answer. True, he described the life of the critic as artist as one of ‘becoming’, rather than ‘doing’ and ‘being’. But he meant it without the hyphen. Wilde would have hated the idea that the self should become nothing other than the flow of otherness. Such a self could only be ‘living for others’ and not for itself. Learning the critical spirit, he argues, may help us to see through the ‘mists of familiarity’, to ‘leave the age in which we were born’ and ‘escape from our experience’. But it is still we who see. Wilde wanted not the proliferation of difference (becoming other than we are), but flourishing (becoming what we might be).

The answer Wilde gives is not ‘becoming-’ but the exemplification of ambivalence. Becoming other than we are requires and affords the dissolution of all ties. This is how becoming- makes it thinkable to dissolve disjointness. But the kind of flourishing of the personality Wilde advocated – in which we become what we might be through the cultivation of a self ‘to whom no form of thought is alien’ – leads not to dissolution, but to a lived ambivalence: the refusal to confine our choices to the menu with which we are presented. Wilde rejected the Victorian aspiration to realise one’s essential character. The self was a matter of personality, not character. It was more contrived, and more performed. Rather than making sincere commitments, we should be insincere, as a means to ‘multiply our personalities’. A self formed by others’ rules must always suppress something else it feels. One which cultivates itself will admit its contradictions. It will, Wilde wrote, be a self of ‘strange temperaments and subtle susceptibilities, gifts of wild ardours and chill moods of indifference, complex multiform gifts of thoughts that are at variance with each other, and passions that war against themselves’.

Does this not sound familiar? To describe unacknowledged disjointness as ‘sordid’ is no longer shocking, as it was when Wilde challenged right-minded Victorian thinking, but a commonplace. The disjointnesses of the past have been mined from below and have crumbled from above. Yet conjointness still proves elusive. At the intersections of separate struggles, the adherent can be (must be) respectful and civil, but there are things he must not say, and the atmosphere is chilly. Perhaps something can be done about that. Perhaps by dissolving her self in common effort, the adherent can achieve a deeper conjointness. Maybe she can open up, or play with the adherent identity, performing or claiming new solidarities with others. But in an era of such self-consciousness, in which even to address disjointness is to act disjointly, it is hard to be sure how to do so.

We live, after all, in an era where – to persist with the theatrical metaphor – one set of concerns puts the self back in the limelight, at the centre of things; while another insists that the adherent self must quit the stage. Adherents now are made special not by their concern for others, but by their desire not to be special. Even as the adherent seeks a way to belong to causes that are no longer her own, or never were, some part of her self hangs back, unsure whether to stay or go, resisting dissolution, resisting commitment, remaining ambivalent. But as Wilde suggests, ambivalence need not be weak or paralyzing or shameful. It is, after all, not indecision or laziness, but an attempt to make the sort of commitment to others that follows from a refusal to be constrained by anyone else’s expectations.


Read More


In this chapter from Other People’s Struggles, I ask what the work of social movements would have to be like for adherents and constituents to be able to pursue it conjointly. I draw on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze to define the work of becoming- (the hyphen indicates open-endedness). In contrast to much of the work I explore in other chapters, becoming- work is not concerned to represent already-formed interests, or express innate essences, or reproduce capacities that some people already have. It is rather concerned with unconstrained liberation and the freedom to self-transform. We could imagine the work of representation as the careful copying of an original, or identity work as the birth, growth and maturity of a unique organism. Becoming- work is neither copying, nor progression from a start-point to an end-point. It is a matter of change itself, without an end-point that can yet be fully conceived. It is not concerned with a world that already exists and needs authentic representation or expression, but with a world of invention and mutation. Its pursuit of change without a destination is driven not by nihilism, but by a sense of unrealized, imagined potentiality.

‘There is no terminus from which you set out, one which you arrive at, or which you ought to arrive at’, writes Deleuze. ‘The question ‘What are you becoming?’ is particularly stupid. For as someone becomes, what he is becoming changes as much as he does himself’.


I think that becoming- work can produce some new answers to the classic dilemmas that adherents present to social movements. In becoming- work, activists are not interested in representing interests that are already formed or destined to form, but in the imagination of alternatives. They are suspicious of representation because it reduces, repressing difference and imposing a false unity on what are multiple singularities; and because it retards, presenting now what is already past. Interests do not form like crystals, but through unrepresentable mutations, in which the eventual form the interest will take evolves in a long, multiplying series of possible encounters, which, seen from any intermediate point in time, could go in any direction. The worry that the ‘real’ interests might get lost along the way is therefore a non-problem, because there is no independent criterion by which they could be judged to be lost or found. ‘Becoming-’, we could say, is all about getting lost along the way.

Another of the dilemmas of adherence concerns whether an adherent can ‘cross over’ to join the constituents in their struggle. The difficulty is that the adherent can only fully cross over by ceasing to be the one who has crossed over. However, this is only so if identity is a matter of ‘being’, and if ‘being’ is binary. If identity is a matter of ‘becoming-’, and ‘being’ is multiple, it becomes possible to imagine other possibilities besides either staying unchanged where you are, or failing to make the impossible crossing. ‘Becoming- work’ can include the adherent who is becoming something else while still being (presently and in some ways) the person she is.

‘Becoming-’, rather than copying, also has implications for the dilemmas of empowerment and solidarity. A movement engaged in becoming- work wants to enlarge capacities to do things that may never have been thought of before. It cannot seek empowerment through encouraging the imitation of the teacher. In becoming- work, the distinction – on which disjoint empowerment rests – between the one whose skills are secure and who knows, and the one whose knowledge is emergent and in flux, is abolished. Instead we might think of the swarming of knowledge, uncontrolled, with pupils and teachers impossible to tell apart.

Becoming- work also helps with the problem of prefiguration. This is the difficulty that in some work the battle cannot be won until people live as though it has been won. But people can only live in this way once the battle has been won. Becoming- work abolishes the untimely, because it abolishes stages and hence the possibility of arriving early. Indeed, it abolishes arrival too: there is only the becoming-. To prefigure is not to surf ahead of the wave, but to be the wave. The only mistake would be for the adherent to imagine that, in prefiguring the future, he or she had arrived.

The aim of becoming- work is only to be ready for transformations – to be ‘worthy of the event’ when it occurs, as Deleuze movingly puts it – and then ‘to take one’s place in it as a becoming, to grow both old and young in it at once’.


In becoming- work, there are no barriers, no privileges, and no guarantees. There are no barriers because being by background a constituent or an adherent, does not matter. What matters are the connections participants make or might make. The participation of adherents also occurs without privilege. They participate in their difference, with the histories and skills they have, rather than pretending to be other than they are or trying to become identical with the constituents. And their participation, like that of everyone else, comes without guarantees, both those which might secure beyond question their place in the movement, and also those which guarantee that their involvement will help.

There are some contemporary examples of becoming- work to be found in the alter-globalization movement and also in queer theory, which I explore in more detail in the chapter.

I do not think that becoming- work can secure a place for the adherent as adherent. There are no secure places any more. I do think, however, that becoming- work resists the pre-emptive exclusion of the adherent, and that, working without borders, privileges and guarantees, it might permit new approaches to the problems of adherence. Judgment of such work must be cautious. It is paradoxically both too early and too late. It is also evident that becoming- work will not always be valuable to a social movement. Some movements might do better by doing without adherents at all. Others might prefer to rely on the unexamined responsibilities that adherents believe they have to help other people in their struggles. But such help can only come disjointly. The most I can claim for becoming- work is that it may be possible to pursue it conjointly.

Nick Owen

The chapter summarised here will appear as part of my book Other People’s Struggles in 2019.

Read More

On having to be
what we cannot be

One of my aims in Other People’s Struggles is to identify how the problem of adherence – the participation of outsiders in social movements – has changed over time. Is it a new problem or an old one?

Adherents, I argue in the book, are best understood as being motivated by concerns for others, and not themselves. Their support for other people’s struggles is not typically disguised selfishness. However, it is also misleading to describe it as selfless. On the contrary, the self is often very much to the fore. The adherent needs to preserve the essence of her self so that she can give of herself. Her self is the ‘furnace’ that fuels her participation.

The problem of the adherent, therefore, is not that concern for others competes with concern for herself. It is that concern for others, to be meaningful, has to be her concern. It is not a concern for herself, but a concern for others which belongs to her.

Some social movements – or strictly speaking some of the work social movements do – can feed the furnace, or allow it to be fed by the adherent, with little difficulty; but others find they cannot do so without having to give up something else that is too important to them. For them especially, but for all movements to some degree, there is a gap, a difference of positioning, a disjointness in the relationships.

The difficulty that the adherent presents, then, is not that the she sacrifices herself for others, but that she realizes herself through others.

How has this difficulty changed over time? The historical studies I used as evidence in Other People’s Struggles suggest that the problems of adherence are not of recent origin. Older struggles have faced similar dilemmas. The studies also show that adherence is not invariably problematic today, even once we have allowed for differences of orientation and ambition. Sometimes, especially when it has made sense given the orientation and ambition of their work, constituents have been grateful and even deferential for the help of adherents.

I think it is also possible to make a conjecture about how the problem has changed over time. The selves around which the problem of adherence moves have become newly complicated, in ways that are only partly captured by the idea that contemporary movements are more ambitious or work in different orientations.

A very simple sketch of this conjecture involves three stages.

In the pre-modern period, obligations to help others in their struggles less a matter of individual choice than of meeting pre-given, public expectations concerning the duties that customarily went with a particular station in life. Some helped, and others were helped. Yet even amid this structural disjointness, there was still one small conjointness: that everyone behaved according to shared expectations. So long as adherents were expected to help others weaker than they, there was no occasion for special recognition from constituents for their doing so. The dilemmas that arose concerned only the alignment of these expectations with the needs of the weak.

In the modern period, with the ‘invention of autonomy’ and the shifts in the conscientious obligations this involved, adherents increasingly defined their obligations for themselves, not just as individuals but also in communities. People became reasoning choosers of their own projects and their own ways of stamping their mark upon the world. These projects included conjoint collective self-advancement, but also the disjoint emancipation of others. Hence this period saw the proliferation both of ‘causes’ and ‘combinations’. The dilemmas included, as before, the alignment of the adherents’ self-chosen emancipatory projects and the needs of those whom they helped. But they also included new dilemmas arising from disjointness between those who got to choose and those who did not; and the new belief that there was something meritorious and not merely expected about choosing to help others.

In our own late modern era, however, this form of participation has become problematic. Modern causes addressed themselves to the damaged selves of the constituents. The selves of the adherents were implicitly defined by their relative completeness. But they were also self-effacing: unmentioned, implicit and unnoticed. Although their own concerns motivated them, and thereby created dilemmas for those they helped, they went mostly unacknowledged.

Now such effacement has become impossible. Adherents have become more aware of themselves, so they are more more self-conscious. Their claims to authority, experience and knowledge were challenged from outside and from within, so they have become self-doubting. But, in late modernity, the self has also become self-actualising. We are no longer stable selves which make choices, but selves defined by our choices. The self-actualising self has to devote effort to securing itself, because the things that once secured it like tradition and community expectations no longer do so. Only its choices secure it, and its choices are its own to make. If, in the modern period, the self became autonomous; in the late modern period, it becomes insecure. Political consciousness – an awareness of what people need and how it might be supplied by them and others – has been awkwardly supplemented by self–consciousness on the part of the adherent.

If that were all, then we might expect adherence to have collapsed into narcissistic insecurity. But self-actualisation need not imply that the self has become selfish. The contemporary adherent responds as an individual (he must decide for himself), without being an individualist (only he matters). He is concerned with his self, not selfish.

Self-actualisation might entail defining oneself as someone who helps others. Indeed, we have kept up, even intensified, the moral concerns we had in the modern era. We still have notions of progress, of ‘going beyond our ancestors’, and of moral improvement. If anything, our moral commitments have widened and grown, even as our selves have required more effort to secure them.

The problem, then, is much subtler than a retreat into selfishness. Whereas in the past moral commitments followed from a certain inherited or newly chosen position, they now imply an actualisation of self. The sorts of commitments we now make have consequences for who we are. Our selves are, to a greater degree than before, made by our consciences.

Hence the characteristic question that people ask themselves when contemplating involvement in other people’s struggles is now, I wonder if it is ‘me’ ? In the pre-modern era, the adherent knew what to do already, in knowing what it was to be who he was, and what was therefore expected of him. In the modern era, she asked herself whether she ought to get involved. For her, the question was, Does my chosen moral code require this of me? Now, in the late modern era of self-actualisation, the question becomes, Is it ‘me’ ?

Adherence today therefore presents its own distinctive knot, made up of three threads.

The first thread arises from the self and its motivational furnace. The adherent has to retain her sense of self (a self she now makes herself) in order to adhere usefully. This need has not diminished over the years. Indeed, if anything, it may have grown hungrier if, as I conjecture, contemporary selves more than ever desire fulfilment through self-expression and self-actualisation.

The second thread is the undiminished obligation to be selfless. There is still, surviving the collapse of authority and confidence, an undiminished expectation (and self-expectation) that historically privileged adherents will support other people’s struggles, not out of advantage but principle. The adherent is privileged, therefore more must be expected of him. He expects more of himself too. He cannot let himself go, because his motivating values and his self-actualisation depend on a helping orientation to others.

The third thread is the necessity of changing oneself according to others’ prescriptions in order to participate fully. The adherent has to change because his unacknowledged historical privilege has collapsed. He cannot be released to himself and his own concerns, and nor can he be allowed to efface himself. He has to change, as he knows, and he cannot participate, as he must, unless he does so. The adherent must not only attend to the needs of the constituents, but also examine and change himself along lines determined by others.

As a consequence, unless something gives, the adherent must be something he cannot be.

The constituents are differently placed. Fighting their own struggles, they find it easier to reconcile autonomy, self-actualisation and the pursuit of improvement. They are not immune to the changes that have affected adherents, but by comparison the values that support their conjoint work, I conjecture, remain robust and interact positively. The problem for adherents is that the values pull in different directions. Contemporary adherents may therefore have to separate their lives in ways that constituents do not. This is another way of saying that contemporary adherents, if these values are important to them, cannot give themselves wholly to other people’s struggles.

If you would like to read this part of a chapter in draft, please click on the paper dart icon to the left, and send me a message.


Read More

Better be a road sweeper
than a judge

The phrase ‘better to be a road sweeper than a judge’ comes from Gilles Deleuze’s Dialogues II. I use it in my book Other People’s Struggles to illustrate an argument about how social movements might approach the problem of the adherent. This is the problem of the difference between ‘insiders’ motivated by standing to benefit if the movement is successful, and ‘outsiders’ who do not stand to benefit, but participate (for example) out of a sense of altruism or moral obligation.

Most of the book concerns the question of whether, when and how the outsiders — or adherents, as I term them — can participate. The answer, I suggest, turns on what the movement is trying to do. But in one chapter, towards the end, I reverse the question. I ask what would a movement have to be trying to do for such participation to be unproblematic. The answer I propose is that it would have to be ‘becoming–’ something other than it is (or, indeed, just ‘becoming–’) The idea of becoming– (the en-dash – is intentional) comes from reading Delueze’s open-ended philosophy.

For Delueze, to quote from Dialogues II again, ‘judging is the profession of many people, and it is not a good profession, but it is also the use to which many people put writing.’ Judges pronounce rules. They preside over courts and lay down the law, impersonally, without themselves being implicated in the judgments they make. They recognise, regulate, admit and decide, rather than simply encountering otherness and seeing where it takes them. They ‘speak … in the name and in the place of others’. This is why it is better to be a road sweeper than a judge.

The phrase is not a negative contrast of professions. It is not that judging is so dreadful that even road sweeping — a hard, dull job — is actually preferable. The contrast is that where judges assume the power to lay down the law and restrict what others can do, road sweepers clear the way for others, perhaps also for themselves, since road sweepers use roads too. Road sweepers assume nothing, but merely help to create the conditions in which all sorts of traffic might happen.

This, I think, is the sort of ‘becoming– work’ which — if pursued by a social movement — might allow insiders and outsiders to participate together, in solidarity. But, whatever else it might be, such work is hard to define, because defining is the work of judges and not road sweepers. It is also often hard to pursue, not only because some people like being judges, and because judging does have certain value and rewards, but also — as Deleuze suggests in Dialogues II — because ‘some people demand to be judged, if only to be recognised as guilty’.


Read More