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A global social movement wave

by Laurence Cox on May 4, 2015
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This is the third of three linked blog posts outlining the argument of We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism. The previous posts discussed Marxism and social movements and Neoliberalism as a social movement from above. We Make Our Own History is available from Pluto at a discount using the code “COX”.

In We Make Our Own History and related work Alf Nilsen and I have presented an analysis of the current global context as not being fundamentally different from the complex historical experience of global waves of revolution (as opposed to simplifying representations of such waves as something like an advertising campaign with the same actors and images across the world). We argued that central to such movement waves is a crisis of hegemony in at least one world region, where (to recall Lenin) elites are no longer able to rule as they have been accustomed, and ordinary people are no longer willing to go on being governed as they have been. How can we understand the current situation in these terms?

The uneven and combined development of social movements

Since around the turn of the millennium we have seen a global wave of movements from below, with the deepest continuity in Latin America and western Europe. South America in particular has seen the breakdown of the US’ historical hegemony over the region and of neoliberal orthodoxy, with a complex range of relationships between states and popular movements indicating that there is more than one possible way forward. In Europe, this continuity within a movement cycle runs from the “movement of movements” around the turn of the millennium through the largest global protests ever on February 15, 2003 (where western Europe was the numerical centre of gravity), into the anti-austerity resistance from the onset of the financial crisis, the indignad@s and Occupy of the early 2010s and on to today. As in Latin America, there is substantial movement continuity across the past decade and a half, but without the political impact of South American movements.

Cox2Elsewhere the two highpoints in terms of popular mobilisation (roughly centred around the years 2000 and 2011) observable in Europe are more sharply separated, as in countries like the US and Australia where post-9/11 repression brought about a clear break in the movement, or in regions like the Arab world where large-scale mobilisation primarily refers to the second of these peaks, but with some development from the earlier movement against the US’ war in Iraq. Finally, countries like India and China have long-standing and large-scale social movements but relatively fragmented and isolated, less able to come together around a social movement project. This “uneven and combined development of social movement mobilisation” mirrors all previous movement experience. Put another way, an organic crisis is felt most sharply in those regions where hegemony is most problematic and where movements are able to develop themselves to the greatest degree. In this respect, the current European manifestation of this crisis is worth a closer look, in the light of the standoff between the European “troika” and the new left Greek government, the rise of Podemos out of the previously autonomous M15 movement and the water charges struggle in Ireland.

Understanding the European crisis

In (primarily western) Europe, We Make Our Own History (written in May 2014) notes that we have experienced a long stalemate in which, what might in other decades have been expected to be the irresistible force of mass popular mobilisations, such movements have nevertheless met the immovable object of neoliberal policy. Yet, also unlike previous experiences, the massive challenge to state power and legitimacy made by such mobilisations has not been effectively repressed; notwithstanding the shootings of protestors at Gothenburg and the killing of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa in 2001, western European states cannot muster sufficient consent for lethal repression.

This, we argue, is another manifestation of the crisis of neoliberal hegemony – just as is the immense difficulty experienced even by those elites who are fully aware of the crisis in articulating a different way forward, seen very visibly in the conflict between the EU and Greece. Underlying the tensions within EU institutions between the dominant hardline approach and the voices of doubt is the declining popular and elite support for neoliberalism. Like other accumulation strategies before it, it has a limited shelf-life, given not least by the declining returns to participants in the hegemonic alliance and thus an increasing tendency to weigh up their exit costs as against the costs of remaining at moments of decisive choice. Under these circumstances, attempting to ride out the crisis without any rearrangements that might change these calculations for participants is an understandable strategy, expressed as a “fierce but brittle” hegemony.

Since we wrote the book, events in Greece, Spain and Ireland have, we think, confirmed much of our analysis. As against accounts that try to explain events in purely economic or party-political terms, what is common to these three countries and distinguishes them from (say) Italy and Portugal is the strength of popular social movements, which is what has reshaped the party systems in these countries (in particular, the collapse of social democratic parties as a primary point of reference for movements, especially labour movements) and is perhaps capable of provoking a wider organic crisis.  There are two aspects to the current developments.

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Keeping the austerity process going

Firstly, as has been widely noted, the conflict represented as one between nation-states is better understood as a conflict within those countries; more specifically, orthodox neoliberal governments, particularly but not only in countries badly hit by austerity (Spain, Ireland and Italy are particular offenders) are determined to avoid anything which might boost support for their own anti-austerity oppositions, even if it might benefit their own economies. If the Greeks are seen to gain anything from the confrontation with Europe, this will benefit Podemos and anti-austerity forces in Ireland enormously, and perhaps disrupt Renzi’s dominance over the Italian PD.

There is also, however, a question of the direction of the EU as a whole, particularly visible in the first days after the Greek election. In this context, hardliners (represented particularly by Germany) take the perspective of a purely technical, financial logic in which there is no plan B to the continued operation of institutional arrangements as they have been carefully put in place with a view to enshrining neoliberalism as a mode of rule – not simply bailout arrangements for individual countries but packages like the Six Pack and the Fiscal Compact which apply to all or most member states.

Doubting voices, at times represented by France, are more concerned about the conditions for continuing consent to EU policy, both in the socio-economic sense in which (for example) Barroso commented in 2013 that Europe is approaching the limits of political sustainability of austerity policies and in the more narrowly political sense in which legitimate rule has increasingly been suspended, not only through EU-wide agreements and Troika bailout conditions, but also through the re-running of referenda, the installation of technical governments and the corruption of governments elected on anti-austerity mandates.

At the time of writing it is not clear that this particular circle can be squared: if Europeans (and not only Spanish and Irish) get a sense that there are alternatives to austerity politics, this could unleash a tidal wave of popular radicalism that would go far beyond the very moderate demands of the Greek negotiating position. Conversely, if no concessions are made (or, put another way, if the EU insists on demonstrating that the results of elections do not matter), the risk is of a substantial erosion of consent in a Europe whose elites are increasingly devoid of popular support. The solidarity call for support for Greece from leading German (and subsequently Austrian) trade unionists highlights this issue. Put another way, if popular political agency is dormant in much of Europe (resigned to the continuation of things as they are or unwilling to step outside of existing arrangements), this cannot be taken for granted as the proponents of a purely technical neoliberalism imposed by institutional force would like.

European movements from below

Secondly, having said this it is important to see the other side, and to keep our attention closely focussed on the vast iceberg of popular movements and not simply on the party elements that may poke above the surface of the water. In the book we joke that if Gramsci imagined the political party as a Modern Prince, many present-day imaginings see it more as a Prince Charming, an easy solution to complex problems that can be arrived at within a safely-bounded environment. The Latin American experience has not been as simplistic as this: while we have seen a series of left governments propelled into power by popular movements, some of them implementing quite dramatic changes, there have been complex relationships between governing parties and movements, with issues of clientelism and co-option as well as outright repression alongside more positive experiences of radical states nurturing popular decision-making capacity. We might reasonably expect to see some of these tensions play out in Greece in the coming months and years, and for that matter in other European countries where elections are due shortly, most obviously Spain and Ireland.

As we have noted elsewhere, it is not the political party situation that aligns Greece (where Syriza has a long and relatively “classical” left genealogy) with Spain (where Podemos is a recent creation from a historically anti-institutional left milieu) and Ireland (where the contenders include three Trotskyist organisations, Sinn Féin dabbling in left populism, a series of ex-Labour Party deputies and various independent leftists). Rather, it is that these manifestations within the political system reflect a significant breakdown of neoliberal hegemony within society and in particular a massive movement upsurge.

Cox4In the Irish case, after several years of consciously traditionalist and relatively ineffectual resistance to austerity measures (in part geared to restoring statist hegemony over social movement struggles), the collapse of the Trotskyist-led campaign against household charges opened a space for direct resistance to the installation of water meters in working-class estates with long histories of community activism (see also the struggle for public water in Italy). This movement spread like wildfire to traditionally conservative parts of the country and has provoked a crisis of state power: in the effective prevention of metering in many areas, confrontation with police and private security, the removal of installed meters, a non-payment campaign including well over half the population, some of the largest protests in living memory and a series of concessions on the part of the state which have comprehensively failed to put the movement back in its box or restore Labour Party hegemony, including over those unions involved in the movement.

Going beyond the limits

Efforts are being made at national and EU level to bring social movements together around resistance to austerity. It would be stretching the point to describe the kinds of forces gathered around things like Blockupy or Altersummit as representing a social movement project in our terms, but it is important to underline the extent to which they rest on fifteen years of a European “movement of movements”, close collaboration in other fields such as climate justice and anti-war activism, and a widespread realisation that the issues at stake are pan-European ones. The potential for something broader is there, and how far social movements from below are able to respond to this and recognise themselves in each other and against neo-liberalism will be determining for Europe’s future direction. In particular, of course, the question is whether the crisis of democratic legitimacy on Europe’s southern and western fringe – ongoing since the Icelandic Saucepan Revolution of 2008 – can find a resonance with deeper tensions inside core European states, particularly France and Germany.

More broadly still, how does this regional crisis relate to the global picture? Space does not permit us to go into the wider historical and global analysis developed in We Make Our Own History, but as noted above global waves of movement mobilisation are always deeply uneven: the hegemonic strength of a particular accumulation strategy, and popular capacity to develop a wider social movement project combining a broad alliance of movements with a challenge to that accumulation strategy, vary dramatically between different regions of the world as well as within them, and cannot neatly be read off from global indicators. As we wrote in the introduction to the book:

This is, in some ways, the best of times, the worst of times. In Europe, movements on a scale which might once have been seen as irresistible encounter the apparently immovable object of EU austerity policies – whose hegemonic reach in turn has never been feebler. In Latin America, a dramatic cycle of movements shaking states seems to be turning into a cycle of states disappointing movements. In North America, the re-establishment of wide-ranging alliances around Occupy and resistance to tar sands extraction seems powerless to affect wider change. Peasant uprisings in India and popular unrest in China also seem to break on the rock of state power. In the Middle East, the Arab Spring seems poised at the end of Act Two, waiting for a new cycle of struggle. Globally, the earth keeps warming and negotiators keep writing backroom trade deals, although their legitimacy has never been less. As Raymond Williams puts it (in Towards 2000), it is not in the ‘detailed restatement of the problem’ that the chances shift in our favour – it comes down to movements, and struggle.

In our view, whether neoliberalism is ending is not the main question we should now be asking. Such hegemonic projects have relatively short shelf-lives, induced by their declining ability to meet the interests of the key members of the alliances which underpin them. The real question is more one of how much damage neoliberalism will do in its prolonged death agonies; and, even more importantly, what (or more sociologically, who) will replace it and how.

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Laurence Cox
Laurence Cox co-directs the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at the National University of Ireland Maynooth and is a founding editor of Interface. Along with We Make Our Own History, he is co-editor of Marxism and Social Movements; Understanding European Movements: New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-Austerity Protest; and Silence Would be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa.
1 Comments
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  • Maria
    May 19, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    Hello,

    though I have no formal education in the area of Political Science or the social sciences in general – I am keenly aware of the crisis we are going thru in many of it’s multifaceted aspects. Basically, I am looking for any signs of hope and change while we still have time. I am an American citizen living in Italy – I would very much like to know what is your view as to what is going on here. For example, the rise of the 5Star movement? What is your opinion as to their particular nature, methods and agenda with regards to the wider picture. I confess I have some hope here though I know fully well how bizarre and almost unconfigurable they appear to be – but this is why I would like your opinion or if you can provide me with further references for Italy in general? Thanks so much

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