By Barry Eidlin
Why and under what conditions do people mobilize collectively? What are the barriers they face when they try to mobilize, and why might they vary? How do these barriers to mobilization shape the organizations that are trying to mobilize people? These are among the biggest questions that scholars of social movements face, no matter what the empirical focus of their work might be.
So, for today’s edition of Mobilizing Ideas’ summer reading guide, I’m deviating from the script. My recommendation isn’t something hot off the presses, nor is it a book. Rather, it’s an article that’s almost as old as I am, which has been foundational to my thinking about social movements. It’s widely cited, although rarely by social movement scholars. Similarly, it can be found on many course syllabi, but rarely courses on social movements. And yet, I contend that it offers social movement scholars vital theoretical and conceptual tools for thinking about their work. So think of this as a “Throwback Thursday” edition of the Mobilizing Ideas summer reading series, where I dig through the crates to bring you a social movement theory gem that’s worth a first look if you’ve never encountered it, and another look if it’s been a while.
The article in question is “Two Logics of Collective Action: Theoretical Notes on Social Class and Organizational Form” by German sociologists Claus Offe and Helmut Wiesenthal. Published in the inaugural issue of Political Power and Social Theory in 1980, it packs into a compact 48 pages incisive critiques of two classic theories of social mobilization: Mancur Olson’s (1965) “Logic of Collective Action” and Robert Michels’ (1915) “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” In so doing, Offe and Wiesenthal develop their own theories of social mobilization and organization that are broadly applicable to scholars of social movements of all kinds.
Most social movement scholars are familiar with Olson’s argument about the collective action problem: in cases where people must act collectively to win or defend a public good, any individual has a rational self-interest to “free ride” and benefit from others’ efforts without contributing themselves. This is the case even if everyone involved agrees on the value of the public good and the actions necessary to win or defend it. Olson is careful to note that this has nothing to do with assumptions about individuals’ innate selfishness. Rather, it is because once groups reach a certain size, it is increasingly difficult for any individual to see that their contribution makes a difference to the outcome. The solution that Olson proposes to the collective action problem is two-fold: get individuals to contribute to the common good either with coercion (mainly in the form of rules and regulations, but sometimes threatened or actual physical force) or selective incentives (separate, tangible benefits given to individuals who contribute to the common good, like an NPR tote bag given for contributing to a public radio station).
Offe and Wiesenthal do not challenge Olson’s fundamental logic. Rather, they point out that his solution only holds in cases where there is minimal disagreement on the nature and value of the public good, as well as the actions necessary to win or defend it. However, in many collective action scenarios, not only is it difficult to assume minimal disagreement among participants, but crucially for social movement scholars, the degree to which minimal disagreement can be assumed is not random. Rather, it is fundamentally conditioned by power.
Offe and Wiesenthal’s theory specifically concerns class power as it relates to the struggle between workers and bosses, but their analysis holds more generally for conflicts between more and less powerful groups. Their core insight is two-fold. First, for groups of less powerful people, the individuals involved are necessarily more reliant on collective action to achieve their goals. More powerful individuals may rely on collective action for certain specific things, but are able to use their superior access to money and influence to achieve other goals individually.
Second, precisely because less powerful people are more reliant on collective action to achieve their goals, groups that organize less powerful people have to reconcile more overlapping and sometimes competing goals. For example, a group organizing in a poor urban area is organizing individuals who are likely not only concerned with fighting poverty, but also against racial discrimination, police brutality, and environmental pollution, and for access to jobs, child care, and housing, just to name a few. Before the group can even get to the stage of applying coercion or selective incentives to achieve its goals, it must first face the challenge of determining what its goals are. This is made even more difficult by the fact that there are rarely any clear “objective” criteria for prioritizing those goals, and there can often be serious disagreement over the existence, nature, and cause of the problems that the group faces, let alone possible solutions. Even if a group decides to focus on a single issue, like gun violence, other overlapping and competing issues still affect members’ ability and willingness to participate. Furthermore, because groups of less powerful individuals are usually trying to change the existing power relationship, not maintain it, their goals are harder to achieve. Simply put, groups of less powerful individuals inherently face higher costs of collective action than their more powerful counterparts, as well as lower chances of success.
How do less powerful groups overcome these barriers? The key for Offe and Wiesenthal is for these groups to change the standards by which individual members calculate the cost of collective action. They do this in two ways. First is the articulation of collective identities that overcome individual feelings of powerlessness and create inherent, as opposed to merely instrumental, value in group participation. Recent examples include the #blacklivesmatter movement, or the idea of “the 99 percent.” Second is the redefinition of goals to transcend economistic cost-benefit analysis. For example, a union’s campaign for a 10 cent/hour raise is redefined not as a fight for an extra $200 per year, but as a struggle for dignity and a decent standard of living. The essential point here for Offe and Wiesenthal is that, for groups of the less powerful, even winning gains that are in members’ instrumental self-interest requires recalculating the costs of collective action along non-instrumental lines: “interests can only be met to the extent that they are partly redefined” (p. 79).
By itself, this constitutes a vitally important contribution towards the understanding of collective action. But Offe and Wiesenthal take the analysis a step further to analyze the dynamics that shape groups of the less powerful as they successfully mobilize and win their redefined goals. This brings them squarely up against Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy. Michels argued that, because leadership is necessary for social order, and changing the social order requires new organizations, those new organizations necessarily develop new leaders. Then, as leaders mistake the indispensability of leadership in general for their own individual indispensability, and as the “objectively immature” masses (Michels 1915:404) clamor for guidance, the leadership layer cuts off from the membership, resulting in an oligarchy that prioritizes organizational preservation over achieving the organization’s stated goals.
Against Michels’ psychologistic Iron Law, Offe and Wiesenthal counterpose their “sociological theory of opportunism.” As with their critique of Olson, the goal is not so much to dismiss the theory entirely as to show that it is a specific case of a more general process. Here, Offe and Wiesenthal offer a theorization of the dynamics that tend to, but do not inevitably, lead organizations of the less powerful to engage in “opportunism.” By this they mean focusing on short-term victories over long-term strategy, prioritizing means (i.e. the organization itself) over ends (i.e. the organization’s stated goals), and emphasizing quantitative criteria of group strength such as membership numbers over qualitative criteria such as the creation and expression of collective identities.
Opportunism, they contend, is both a “rational and unstable solution” (p. 106) to the dilemma that organizations of the less powerful face of constantly having to struggle not only to achieve their goals, but to figure out what those goals are, and to redefine the cost-benefit calculus necessary to overcome members’ barriers to collective action. Concretely, opportunism is a rational solution because it makes organizational functioning easier. It does so by making the organization function more along instrumental lines, de-emphasizing the work of redefining identities and interests in favor of short-term, easily measurable goals like membership recruitment or passing specific legislation, however limited. But opportunism is also an unstable solution because, as the organization de-emphasizes the non-instrumental aspects of its work, it undermines the very mechanism that gives it the possibility of overcoming members’ barriers to collective action and upending existing power inequalities.
Offe and Wiesenthal sketch out a model of how this dynamic unfolds in organizations of the less powerful. At stage one, the organization is focused on forging a collective identity and cultivating its members’ willingness and ability to act, often in militant, disruptive ways. Once it has achieved certain goals through its proven ability to act, the organization enters stage two. At this stage, the organization can extract gains from more powerful actors not only from acting, but from threats based on its proven capacity to act. At this stage the organizational leadership faces two contradictory obligations. On the one hand, it must retain a credible threat of action, meaning that it must show that it can mobilize and activate its members. Failure to do so threatens the organization’s survival. On the other hand, it must show that it can credibly remove the threat of disruption, that it is capable of controlling its membership. Failure to do so threatens the organization’s ability to succeed. But members being human beings, not light switches, it is difficult to keep an organization simultaneously poised for action and restrained.
This unstable arrangement can go in two directions. In the context of high levels of broad social mobilization, the organization can “regress” back to stage one, and continue extracting demands through social mobilization and disruption. Absent that context, organizations tend to move to stage three. There, organizational leaders seek to resolve the unstable arrangement by replacing the risky “internal guarantee of survival” represented by the members’ capacity to mobilize with more stable “external guarantees of survival” (p. 107). This involves becoming recognized as a “responsible” representative incorporated into the formal decision-making channels of “regular” politics, i.e. the politics of the powerful. In so doing, the organization adopts more bureaucratized, professionalized forms of functioning, along with insulating the leadership from the membership.
While this arrangement can function for some time, at a certain point the organization reaches stage four. There, its “internal guarantees” have atrophied to the point where it is almost completely dependent on its “external guarantees” of survival. This leaves the organization vulnerable in the event that those external guarantees are withdrawn, as it can no longer provide a credible threat of disruption to its more powerful bargaining counterparts. This can either lead to organizational decline and dissolution, or to a stage five, characterized by efforts at revitalizing the organization’s disruptive mobilizational capacities.
Needless to say, there is much more to Offe and Wiesenthal’s argument which is impossible to capture in such a short capsule summary. However, I hope that this summary has illustrated some of the ways in which Offe and Wiesenthal offer important insights into some of the key questions that social movement scholars face. If it’s been a while since you’ve looked over the article, perhaps it’s time to revisit it. And if you’ve never had a chance to read it, I would encourage you to take some time this summer to get acquainted. I can’t exactly say that it’s pleasure reading, but it is rewarding.
Michels, Robert. 1915. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York: Hearst’s International Library.
Offe, Claus and Helmut Wiesenthal. 1980. “Two Logics of Collective Action: Theoretical Notes on Social Class and Organizational Form.” Political Power and Social Theory 1(1):67–115.
Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.