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The twilight of neoliberalism: can popular struggles create new worlds from below?

by Alf Nilsen on September 8, 2014

In my new book with Laurence CoxWe Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, we condense four decades of research and activism into an argument about how ordinary people can understand the nature of the world we live in and find ways to push beyond the neoliberal orthodoxy of the last few decades.

Nilsen and CoxWe start by asking how we can get beyond the theologies of university economists – impervious to the failures of their ideas and their costs in human lives – and the opinion politics of angry right-wingers on the Internet. We look at how people in struggle learn about the world through attempting to change things (and in the process overthrow apartheid, dictatorships or empires) and develop movement-based theories such as Marxism, feminism or ecological thinking.

We Make Our Own History rethinks humanist Marxism as a theory of collective action, including the ways in which social movements from below can develop from localised struggles over individual issues to far-reaching projects for social change (a welfare state, an end to patriarchy, an ecologically sustainable society). It also looks at the history of movements from above – those which can draw on the resources of capital, the state or cultural power to impose themselves. Rather than see these as unstoppable, we show how complex the process of constructing power has been, how at every stage of the way popular resistance has shifted the terrain, and how short-lived all historical forms of capitalism have been.

In fact, the neoliberal world which was ushered in by Pinochet’s tanks and death squads in 1973 is not looking particularly healthy at present. Here are a few of the factors we discuss, leading inexorably to change:

  • Geopolitically, the “New World Order” which was once supposed to represent a permanent post-Cold War settlement is in serious trouble. The Latin American pink tide demonstrated US inability, for the first time in a century or more, to impose its will (in military, foreign policy or economic terms) on its Latin American “backyard”. The planned “long war on terror” is basically over, with the original strategy for a rolling series of attacks on rogue states buried in the sand and political support for US wars collapsing not only among US elites, but also their European and Arab allies under the impact of the anti-war movements of 2003 in particular. This has fed into a broader weakness in relation to control of the strategically crucial Middle East and North African region manifested in the “Arab Spring”, in particular events in Egypt, and subsequent failure to secure support for war in Syria.
  • It has taken the World Trade Organisation 14 years since the Seattle protests to achieve its first comprehensive agreement; other global arrangements intended to institutionalise neoliberalism for good have collapsed (Multilateral Agreement on Investments) or stalled (Free Trade Area of the Americas); other agreements are increasingly negotiated in secret or on a purely bilateral basis. The democratic legitimacy of global elites has taken a massive hammering, with “neoliberalism” now a dirty word and the EU regularly suspending the operations of democracy in order to keep the austerity show on the road. Internally, the financial crisis has hit many previous supporters of neoliberal politics, notably among western middle classes, badly; and the failure to develop an adequate response to climate change poses a medium-term threat to many fixed assets.
  • All of this also dramatises the inability of neoliberal elites to offer any effective leadership, or to manage any strategy more complex than“hold on tight and cross your fingers”. The tentative criticisms of neoliberalism made at the start of the current crisis by isolated elite members have had no real implication beyond the narrowly technical (“quantitative easing”, and so on). There is no significant dissent within elites about the proposal that the only way forward is more austerity, more neoliberalism, more privatisations. Unless, of course, we stop it; and the fact that elites are so resistant to alternatives is one of the major factors forcing ordinary people into radical resistance. We are increasingly in a zombie-like phase of capitalist development, as Jamie Peck outlines, in which elites are incapable of solving contradictions through new hegemonic projects. This signals the onset of the twilight of neoliberalism.

Popular agency: no short-circuit

Many of these aspects of the crisis are closely associated with popular movements: Latin American struggles, revolts in the Arab world, the anti-war movement, protests against the security state, the global justice and anti-austerity movements, and ecological movements for climate justice. This does not mean, however, that movements will necessarily be the beneficiaries of the crisis: as our historical account shows, it is one thing to make a particular hegemonic alliance politically unsustainable but another thing altogether to be able to create a new alliance capable of charting a new direction. At present, we argue, there has been a long stalemate in which neoliberalism has not been able to recover popular consent or to drive movements from below off the streets, but those movements have mostly been incapable of moving beyond it (with the important exception of some Latin American contexts).

Yet any attempt to shortcircuit the slow development of popular agency, whether through opinion politics or intellectual critique which discuss structures in isolation from the kinds of agency which sustain them – and the kinds of agency needed to overcome them – is doomed to failure. The most effective orientation for change is one which starts from dialogue with practically situated struggles – those that people have to engage in to sustain their lives – and supports their extension in alliances across space but also across the social world, into far-reaching projects for change which are grounded in a wide range of different situations. These processes of external struggle, internal learning and alliance-building are what matter most, and there is no short-cut (in universities, parties or shouting at the computer screen) that can usefully avoid them.

Human beings make our own history, but not just as we please: neoliberalism, like all other forms of capitalism before it (and in the bigger picture like every form of class society), had a beginning and will have an end. The key question in this crisis is whether movements from below are able to develop together in a way that enables them to set the direction for what comes next.

This post first appeared on Open Democracy on 1 September 2014.

Alf Nilsen
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.
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