Alf Gunvald Nilsen 

This is the text of a talk given at the 30-year colloquium of the Society, Work and Development Institute at Wits University, 13/05/2015.

Screenshot 2014-08-09 16.38.26My intervention here today is based on a book that I have co-authored with my good friend and comrade Laurence Cox, entitled We 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.

Marxism as “Movement-Theory”

In trying to do this, we take our point of departure in the following paradox: that Marxism is in many ways a form of “movement-theory” (that is, a body of theory that has developed in and through dialogues with social movements that were decisive in shaping the making of the modern world) but nevertheless lacks a distinct theory of social movements (that is, a theory which specifically seeks to understand and explain the emergence, character, and trajectories of social movements). How then, do we think social movements with Marxism?

Our proposition is to start from the commitment in Marx’s thought to demystify the social – that is, the insistence that was constant in Marx’s 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 social movement research, where the object of study is typically defined as a fixed institutional dimension of the political system (i.e. as extra-parliamentary collective action) and this is so in two specific respects:

Firstly, given that we think of social movements as the structured agency through which social order and social Screenshot 2014-08-21 19.31.13
change is made and unmade, we propose a basic distinction between social movements from above and 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 engage in so as to maintain or extend their hegemonic position in a given social formation by drawing on privileged access to economic, political, and cultural power resources, constructing horizontal alliances between different elite groups, and relating to subaltern groups through contingent combinations of coercion and consent. Intellectually, we hope this concept is useful in terms of the objective of demystifying social structures and historical processes, and politically we hope that it might speak to the activist experience of confronting the conscious and determined opposition rather than the inert resistance of a thing-like structure.

Secondly, in thinking about social movements from below, we break with the tendency in mainstream theory to assume categorical distinctions between – for example – everyday resistance, social movements, political parties, and revolutionary processes. We do so because we take seriously the intention that social movements have of moving – of becoming more than what they currently are – and therefore 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.

chinastrikeIn 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. This is of course a fundamentally political orientation, in that it pays particular attention to how the specific shapes of the social world are the outcome and object of power struggles, but also in that it recognises the contingency and agency involved in these processes and hence the potential for things – that is, the social worlds that we inhabit – to be otherwise.

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. In doing so, the neoliberal project has disembedded capitalist accumulation from the institutionalized regulations that had circumscribed commodification in the post-war years and effectively restored the power of capital over labour on a global scale.

IScreenshot 2014-04-07 00.40.35n 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 the inter-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 postwar 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.

Screenshot 2014-04-06 14.33.45The global extension of the neoliberal project through the response to the Third World debt crisis in the 1980s and 1990s is of course well-known and need not be rehearsed here. Rather, I want to say a few things about how what neoliberalism set out to achieve – in a nutshell, the restoration of the power of capital over labour – is inscribed in its political economy. First of all, this restoration appears in the emergence of a new geography of production which has enabled transnational capital to escape the postwar social compacts with organized labour in the global North and – simultaneously – to exploit the vast masses of unorganized labour in the global South. 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 spiraling 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 of the Pyrrhic kind, first and foremost, perhaps, the fact 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. Indeed, a key part of the argument that we make in We Make Our Own History – and this is an argument that runs counter to much of the pessimism that suffuses both journalistic and academic accounts of the present conjuncture – is that the crisis of 2008 heralds the onset of the twilight of neoliberalism; in other words, the present crisis might also be a terminal crisis.

SAWAThe current crisis – both in terms of its economic origins and in terms of its social consequences – have done much to erode the legitimacy of one 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. In this context, the widespread application of austerity is not necessarily 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, and who more often than not prefer coercion over consent in their encounters with the discontent of subaltern groups.

Screenshot 2014-04-07 00.41.06Adding 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 unravelling not only encompasses the waning of American economic supremacy since the 1970s, but – as evidenced in, for example, the erosion of support for the War on Terror, the new-found capacity of Latin American states to distance themselves from US tutelage, and the failure to garner support for military interventions in Georgia, Syria and the Ukraine – also clear tendencies towards the weakening of Washington’s geopolitical clout. 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 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

Screenshot 2014-08-21 19.24.14Ours is one such conjuncture: we are currently one and a hald 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 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 coopt 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) – 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”, and where popular collective agency is embroiled in a search for alternatives to ANC hegemony.

In this context, the Marxist position should not be that in all times and in all places the political party is the best way toScreenshot 2014-08-21 19.29.32 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; conversely, a project which turns out to substitute itself for that or demobilize 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”. The answer to that question hinges in large part on our ability to 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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