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Social Movements and the New State: The Fate of Pro-Democracy Organizations When Democracy Is Won

Social Movements and the New State: The Fate of Pro-Democracy Organizations When Democracy Is Won, by Brian K. Grodsky. Stanford University Press, 2012, 216 pp.

With the Middle East and North Africa still reeling from the surge of prodemocracy activism heralded forth by the Arab Spring, the aftermath of prodemocracy movements continues to unfold in unexpected ways; yet little research examines what happens once these organizations achieve democratization. For these reasons, many readers will find Brian Grodsky’s Social Movements and the New State a particularly interesting and timely read. In this work, Grodsky tackles the difficult question of “what next” when prodemocracy organizations succeed in their quest for democracy. Once activists have achieved democratization, some inevitably enter into their new political institutions to enact the meaningful policy changes they championed. The lingering question for activists and observers alike is whether these social movement organizations are better able to leverage the government now that their former colleagues hold office.

Chapters one and two provide an introduction and overview of the book’s theoretical framework, argument, and methodology. The central research question of this work is, “What is the nature of the relations between social-movement organizations and the state once victory has been achieved?” (p. 33). In an effort to explain how activists may influence the policy-making process, Grodsky begins by discussing two theoretical arguments: group identity and social networks. The former argument suggests that organizations can best strengthen their position by having their members assume governmental positions because their former colleagues will continue to share common values and norms with their organization. Similarly, the social networks approach argues that the former activists will maintain social ties with their organizations. Both arguments posit that social movement organizations and their former colleagues will continue to follow similar trajectories, reaching agreements on a broad range of shared policy objectives due to their common interests and personal relationships. However, as demonstrated in the following three case studies, these parties soon found themselves at odds, and in many regards, the remaining activists were virtually isolated from the public policy-making process altogether.

This work argues that while identities and networks are important, they are ultimately constrained by institutions, which reshape the values, interests, and preferences of those in office. Once in office, former activists are responsible for a wider range of issues and governmental burdens, which requires them to adjust their policy objectives. Importantly, group identity and social networks are not completely discounted as activists and their former colleagues experience “multiple embeddedness,” during which they seek to balance competing identities and networks (p. 21). These personal relationships between activists and their former colleagues are a double-edged sword. The increased access to elites, which many activists assumed would lead to sweeping access to their new democratic governments, had some success in achieving minor policy changes. However, this access quickly diminished, often leading to greater conflict, as institutional pressures (both domestic and international) constrained government decision making. These institutional pressures ultimately overshadowed any privileged benefits from personal relationships forged by existing group identities and social networks.

Grodsky utilizes a “most different systems” approach to analyze three case studies, which were selected for their variance among three independent variables: movement type (their inclusivity), duration, and nature of struggle (regime type and degree of repression) (p. 29). These three cases, which comprise chapters three through five, respectively, are Poland’s Solidarity movement, South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African National Civic Organization (SANCO), and Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution.

A major contribution of this work is its ability to illuminate the roles and constraints of institutions in three unique cases. Importantly, as demonstrated in each case, institutions overshadowed and ultimately changed the preferences and values of those that entered into office. His analysis employs over 150 interviews with activists, government officials, and political elites, providing for a rich and engaging qualitative study from a microlevel perspective.

One interesting observation developed in the studies of Poland and South Africa is how international pressures on institutions ultimately led former activists to pursue drastically different policy positions than they called for while outside of government. In Poland, against extreme backlash from their former activist colleagues, ex-trade unionists and “self-proclaimed Communists” quickly pursued neoliberal economic policies once in office (p. 138). Similarly, in South Africa, the Communist Party pursued free trade initiatives, despite protests from labor activists. In both cases, international pressure on existing institutions led former activists to pursue global neoliberal economic positions that stood in stark contrast to the ideals put forth by their respective social movement organizations.

Georgia’s Rose Revolution differs from the other two cases in that it was primarily led by Western-backed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as opposed to mass popular mobilization. However, it too found itself in a similar situation as institutional forces shaped key policy considerations. Unlike Poland and South Africa, which placed economic concerns at the forefront of their policy agenda, institutional pressures led Georgian officials down a path of power consolidation in the interest of national security and stability. While institutional concerns shaped governmental policies, existing personal networks compromised the watchdog component of civil society. Many sought to give their former colleagues “more time” in order to work out the difficulties of democratization, having faith that they would act in their shared best interests. NGOs that abdicated their watchdog responsibilities and looked upon this transitioning government favorably were rewarded, often with lucrative contracts and grants, while those that were critical soon found themselves isolated. Additionally, this chapter illuminates Grodsky’s notion that existing identities and networks will lead to more intense conflicts between activists and their former colleagues. This is most evident in the example of the Georgia Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), which became a flash point for emotionally charged, personal attacks.

In sum, Grodsky’s work provides a welcomed and much needed illumination into the aftermath of successful prodemocracy movements. This work is best suited for those seeking answers to the “what next” question, as well as those interested in civil society or the democratization efforts and transitions of Poland, South Africa, and Georgia. Readers seeking a comprehensive overview of social movement literature or theories will be disappointed and should look elsewhere. His analysis is not theoretically cumbersome, as Grodsky states that this work “looks not at theories that deal directly with this topic but at the implications of theories that can be logically extended to it” (p. 33) with the underlying goal of unearthing “individual perceptions of how the relationship between state and organization has evolved”(p. 28). To this end, the book succeeds, providing an insightful and captivating analysis of how institutions shaped the democratic transitions of these states.

Stephen M. Strenges
University of South Florida

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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