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Alf Nilsen launches his book We Make Our Own History, at Ike's Books, 4 June

Book Launch – Ike’s Books and Collectables/UKZN
Social Movements in the Twilight Years of Neoliberalism:
A Marxist Perspective

Alf Gunvald Nilsen

My intervention here this afternoon is based on a book that I have co-authored with my good friend and comrade Laurence Cox, entitled W Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism (Pluto Press, 2014). The book is intended to serve as an exploration of the relationship between Marxism and social movements in a particular political and economic conjuncture that we refer to as the twilight of neoliberalism – or, put slightly differently, the purpose of the book is to reclaim Marxism as a theory that can serve activist purposes and knowledge interests in a context where neoliberalism appears to be undergoing a moment of organic crisis.

If I am asked to pinpoint the origins of the book, the most obvious answer is a shared sense of frustration, potentials and paradoxes in relation to the study of social movements. Our frustration has first of all been with the many limitations of established social movement theories – on the one hand, with the various ways in which these theories operate with a deeply reductive conceptualization of social movements as a particular institutional level of an essentially fixed political order, separate and different from everyday resistance, political parties, trade unions, and revolutionary transformations; and on the other hand with the limited capacity of such theories to say anything of strategic substance about the struggles of the day.

In contrast to these theories, there was much about Marxism that suggested to us its potential as a movement-relevant theory: it is, after all, a body of theory that has been developed from and in dialogue with the struggles of social movements that have been central to the making of the modern world. Yet, in approaching Marxism from the point of view of studying movement processes, we found ourselves confronted with a fundamental paradox, namely the absence of a theory that specifically explains the emergence, character, and development of social movements.

How then, do we think social movements with Marxism?

Marxism as Movement-Theory
What we propose in We Make Our Own History is that there is much to be gained – both intellectually and politically – by starting from the commitment in Marx’s thought to the radical demystification of the social – that is, the insistence that was constant in his work from the early days of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to his mature writing in Capital that social structures and historical processes are nothing but the products of conflicts over how human practice to satisfy human needs is to be organized and structured.

From this starting point, we move on to suggest a reading of social movements as being simultaneously constituted by and constitutive of praxis, and thus as being at the very heart of the making and unmaking of the structures and processes that underpin both social order and social change. Our understanding of social movements is thus wider than what is commonly proposed in mainstream sociological approaches to social movements, where the object of study is typically defined as a fixed institutional dimension of the political system – typically extra-parliamentary forms of collective action centred around a specific issue or grievance – and this is so in two specific respects:

First of all, given that we think of social movements as the structured agency through which social order and social change is both made and unmade, we propose a basic distinction between, on the one hand, social movements from above and, on the other hand, social movements from below.

When we speak of social movements from above, we are referring to the various forms of collective action that dominant groups constantly pursue in order to maintain or extend their hegemonic position in a given social formation. These forms of collective action typically draw on privileged access to economic, political, and cultural power resources; seek to construct horizontal alliances between different elite groups; and relate to subaltern groups through contingent combinations of coercion and consent.

Intellectually, we hope this concept may serve the purpose of demystifying social structures and historical processes by placing these squarely within the ambit of agency – to put it very simply: that which has been made by the collective agency of human beings can also be unmade by the collective agency of human beings. Politically, we hope that the concept might be of strategic relevance by addressing the activist experience of confronting conscious and determined opposition from above rather than simply the inert resistance of a thing-like structure, and in extension of this enabling ways of thinking about how it may be possible to confront and transcend this opposition.

Secondly, in our thinking about social movements from below, we break with the reductive tendency in mainstream theory to work with a circumscribed institutional understanding of what social movements are and what they do –an understanding in which social movements are posited as a fixed institutional level – specifically, as extra-parliamentary collective action –within a political system that is in turn taken as a given, and as being fundamentally different from everyday resistance, social movements, trade unions, political parties, and revolutionary processes.

Our alternative approach is based on taking seriously the intention that most movements have of moving – that is, of becoming more than what they commonly are. And for this reason, we start from the specific sets of social relationships in which ordinary people are embedded and which are marked in all their workings by the hegemonic projects of social movements from above, and concentrate on the practices and meanings that subaltern groups develop as they try to meet their needs within such contexts. From this starting point, we think of social movements from below as a wide spectrum that spans the local rationalities that subaltern groups develop to cope with power from above; the localized struggles that sometimes erupt from these rationalities; the campaigns that are brought into being when activists link struggles across space; and the social movement projects that infrequently but dramatically articulate a substantial challenge to hegemony around a different vision of how society can be organized.

In sum, what this widening of the concept of social movement leaves us with is an orientation towards understanding the present conjuncture in terms of how it has been produced through the conflictual encounter between social movements from above and below – both across historical time and across spatial scales – that enables us to think about the potential for things – that is, the worlds that we inhabit – to be other than what they currently are. That potential is of course inextricably linked to the trajectories of social movements from below, and whereas we do not argue that these trajectories by necessity move from one step to another, we do insist that it is crucial – both analytically and politically – to recognize that the point at which a given movement might be at a specific point in time is not always the limit of where and how far it might be possible for it to go.

Neoliberalism as a Social Movement From Above
One of the things we try to do in We Make Our Own History is to offer a substantial analysis of how different phases of capitalist development derive their distinct political economies from cycles of struggle between social movements from above and social movements from below in the context of systemic crises. Now, whereas our book outlines a long view of how capitalism has been shaped by cycles of struggle from its historical emergence through processes of primitive accumulation, colonialism and bourgeois revolution onwards, what I want to do here is to say a few things about how neoliberalism can be understood as a social movement from above.

The neoliberal project originates in the collapse of the state-centred form of capitalist development that was hegemonic across the North-South axis from the post-war years until the early 1970s, and which was shaped in very fundamental ways by reforms that had been won by the social movements of working classes and colonized peoples in the first half of the twentieth century. The crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s was an organic one in Gramsci’s sense of the term – that is, it was one of those moments in history when established truce lines between dominant and subaltern groups broke down: across the North-South axis subaltern groups no longer accepted the terms on which they were ruled and elites were faced with the challenge of articulating a response that would ensure the reproduction of hegemony.

In responding to this challenge from below, elites in effect constructed and pursued a political project that took aim at reversing many of the victories that had been won by social movements from below during the first half of the twentieth century. And in achieving precisely this, the neoliberal project has succeeded in disembedding capitalist accumulation from the institutionalized regulations that had circumscribed commodification in the post-war years and effectively restoring the power of capital over labour on a global scale.

In We Make Our Own History we propose an analysis of the making of this project that focuses on the convergence of three significant processes with different gestation periods. Firstly, it is imperative to understand the long crystallization of neoliberal thought collectives from marginal entities in theatre-war period to transnationally linked networks of think-tanks that created and propagated a neoliberal policy agenda as an alternative to the Keynesian orthodoxy that prevailed in the post-war years. Secondly – and fundamentally related to the making of the neoliberal thought collective –was the emergence of a significant fraction of corporate capital that sought to break with the regulatory regimes of the post-war economic order and which became increasingly organized and systematic in their advocacy of neoliberal policy prescriptions. And thirdly, the political breakthrough of the neoliberal project in the global North was ensured by the construction of links between think-tanks, transnational capital and forces in British and American politics that promulgated new policy regimes which fused sociocultural conservatism with a market-oriented critique of Keynesian economics.

Secondly, it appears in the substantial expansion of the reach of the market logic that has occurred through “accumulation by dispossession” – a process that has reversed crucial forms of decommodification and created new spaces of accumulation for economic elites. The combined effect of this has been, on the one hand, a substantial restoration of profit rates for capital, coupled with spiralling inequality and the emergence of new surplus populations who are governed in part through market-oriented forms of workfare and in part through forms of punitive containment that are manifest in, for example, the booming US prison industry and the heavily militarized borders of Europe.

The Twilight of Neoliberalism
The neoliberal project has in many ways achieved what it initially set out to do – namely restore the power of capital over labour. However, there is much to suggest that the neoliberal victory is a profoundly contradictory one, and also that the elites which have been at the helm of this project during the past three and a half decades are fundamentally unable to address its current crisis. Indeed, it is this scenario that leads us to propose that neoliberalism has entered its twilight years.

I’m aware, of course, that this contention is at variance with much of the pessimism that suffuses purportedly radical portraits of the current conjuncture, in which austerity is seen as being emblematic of a neoliberalism reloaded. However, in thinking through an alternative diagnosis of the current conjuncture, it might be useful to remind ourselves, first of all, that the crisis that erupted in 2008 and that still dogs the world economy originated in the very same accumulation strategies – above all, financialization – that were used to restore the power of capital.

Precisely because of this, the current crisis and its social consequences have done much to erode the legitimacy of one of the central ideological tropes of the neoliberal project – namely the claim that individuals who act as entrepreneurial financial subjects can maximize their well-being through prudent investments in the marketplace. Crucially, this has has undermined support for neoliberalism, especially, perhaps, among middle classes who banked on promises of material benefits and social mobility. And given this context, it is arguably also mistaken to consider the widespread application of austerity measures as a sign of strength on the part of economic and political elites. Rather, it signals that social movements from below are confronted with elites who have no plan B – that is, no credible hegemonic project that would be capable of charting out new ways of organizing capitalist accumulation that moves us beyond the many contradictions and cul-de-sacs of neoliberalism – and who more often than not prefer coercion over consent in their encounters with the discontent of subaltern groups.

Adding to this scenario is the fact that the crisis of neoliberalism is deeply entwined with the erosion of US hegemony in the world-system. This should not be taken as an argument to the effect that the BRICS-countries, for example, offer an alternative to Pax Americana – an argument that ignores that the new spirals of growth in the global South are based on neoliberal strategies and their attendant economic and social asymmetries – but the fact that Washington’s economic and geopolitical clout is waning (a fact that is evidenced, for example, in the declining support for the War on Terror and the failure to garner support for military interventions in Georgia, Syria and the Ukraine) is not without consequences for social movements from below.

This, then, is the twilight of neoliberalism: a moment in which political and economic elites are evidently incapable of solving fundamental contradictions through new hegemonic projects. And this is the terrain upon which movements from below mobilize to make their own history in the twilight of neoliberalism. In bringing this intervention to a close, I want to say a few things about the strategic challenges that movements from below confront on this terrain.

Global Movement Waves
At certain conjunctures, capitalism generates waves of resistance – think 1848 or 1968 – that are substantial enough to challenge existing hegemonic relations. These movement waves typically encompass one or more regions of the world-system, span substantial periods of time, and are often characterized by revolutionary situations – but not necessarily revolutionary outcomes. However, even in moments of defeat, movement waves tend to result in substantial changes in the way that hegemonic relations are organized.

Ours is one such conjuncture: we are currently one and a half decades into a cycle of struggle which has witnessed the construction of what might be called “a movement of movements” – that is, the coming together of a diversity of independently constituted movements around the idea of neoliberal capitalism as a common adversary, but without submitting to one particular leadership or one particular political identity.

However, global waves of movement mobilization also tend to be deeply uneven: movement landscapes in specific countries and regions have emerged out of particular histories of mobilization and also confront different forms of opposition from above. On a global scale, it is perhaps in Latin America that popular resistance to neoliberalism is most advanced, in the form of the Pink Tide phenomenon that has seen left-wing governments being swept to power in the context of large-scale mobilization from below.

The Latin American experience is itself highly uneven – some regimes have made substantial strides in advancing social justice and nurturing popular capacities for decision-making whereas others have failed to deliver the kind of change that was expected and in some cases have sought to co-opt and demobilize popular mobilization – but then again, this unevenness presents us with rich lessons about how to think (and not to think) about the relationship between states, parties and movements in the current conjuncture.

Above all, the Latin American experience tells us that it is of key importance to steer a path between the Scylla of state-centrism and the Charybdis of autonomism when we think strategy. This entails recognizing, on the one hand, that the form of the state can be transformed – up to a point – by movements from below and that the victories that can be gained from such transformations can prepare the ground for further counterhegemonic advances. On the other hand, it also entails recognizing that winning reforms through a reconstituted state is not the be-all and end-all of popular mobilization and that it is necessary to think in strategic terms about what it means – in different contexts – to move beyond the institutionalization of political power in the capitalist state.

That these are questions of great significance becomes even more evident if we consider movement landscapes in other regions of the world-system: in China and India, neoliberal market reforms have given rise to some of the most important sites of resistance to the neoliberal project in the form of widespread labour conflicts and resistance to corporate takeover of land and other natural resources. However, in both contexts, social movements confront thorny questions about how to engage with powerful states. In Europe – or rather, on the margins of the Eurozone (Greece, Spain, Ireland,Iceland) – new constellations are emerging in which the anti-austerity agenda is being pushed by both movements and parties amid ongoing and difficult debates about the prospects for achieving radical change within the EU system. In Northern Africa and the Middle East, the hopeful energies of the Arab Spring seem to have been exhausted by authoritarian responses from above. And I’m conscious, of course, of the fact that I’m speaking in the context of what has been called “the protest capital of the world”, in which popular collective agency is striving to move beyond the ambit of ANC hegemony, and in which such agency too often assumes forms that lend credence to Fanon’s observation that the anger that fuels postcolonial nationalisms can find very dangerous outlets.

In this context, the Marxist position should not be that in all times and in all places the political party is the best way to organize – a stance which is tantamount to fetishizing one political model over all others. Rather, our approach should be that of a commitment to contributing to the efforts of movements to become more than what they currently are, among other things through processes of alliance-building between movements and efforts to identify the most radical common potential for counter- hegemonic unity between subaltern groups as well as strategies for disaggregating existing hegemonic alliances. Put slightly differently, from a Marxist point of view a party is of value precisely to the extent to which it succeeds in embodying and developing the movement process from below – or, what Marx referred to as “the movement as a whole”. Conversely, a project that turns out to substitute itself for such processes or demobilise movement participants is surely missing the point.

E. P. Thompson once said that “the question is not whether we are on Marx’s side, but whether Marx is on ours”. What the answer to that question will be hinges, ultimately, on our ability to make ourselves useful to the struggles of social movements from below to make our own common history after the twilight of neoliberalism finally fades to black.

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