Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The twilight of neoliberalism: theorising social movements in the age of Trump and Brexit

Abstract for a talk at Aarhus University's CESAU in December, together with the launch of a special issue of the journal Slagmark on neoliberalism:

In 2014’s We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, Alf Gunvald Nilsen and I argued that neoliberalism, like other forms of capitalism before it, had entered an organic crisis characterised both by a crumbling of the social alliances underpinning neoliberalism as a strategy for accumulation and by a global “movement of movements” against neoliberalism, running from global justice struggles around the turn of the millennium to contemporary anti-austerity movements. Indeed the widespread usage of the term neoliberalism itself is in large part a reflection of its adoption as a term enabling alliance formation between very different social movements. Underpinning this analysis is our wider rereading of Marxism as a theory of collective human action, in which both social order and social change are produced by the conflictual interactions between “social movements from above” such as that which gave rise to neoliberalism as an effective political project, and “social movements from below”, operating on many different scales from the local to the global.

Since writing the book, we have seen the EU’s austerity policies encounter crisis after crisis around the European periphery, while core EU states have seen multiple challenges from the right as well as the remarkable French experience of Nuit Debout. In the UK and US neoliberalism has been challenged on the left by Corbyn and Sanders and on the right by Trump and Brexit. The US election and British referendum neatly illustrate the operations of social movements from above, as well as the increasing difficulty of securing consent for neoliberal accumulation strategies; meanwhile in Ireland popular resistance to water charges has produced a situation of near-paralysis of state power in the attempt to impose neoliberal measures. The twilight of neoliberalism is precisely this situation – shared with some other world regions – where a once-hegemonic strategy of accumulation cannot sustain the social alliance it requires for longer-term consent and new initiatives. Meanwhile, new models – whether serious new elite strategies or powerful movements from below – are not yet able to impose themselves sustainably. 

In this context, I argue that it is important to take social movements and collective action – from above and below – seriously, rather than naturalising and eternalising the institutional structures of a particular historical period whose continuation, in the last analysis, depends on the outcome of these conflicts. To quote We Make Our Own History

“[W]hether neoliberalism is ending is perhaps 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 that underpin them. The real question is more one of how much damage neoliberalism will do in its death agonies; and, even more importantly, what (or more sociologically, who) will replace it and how.”
Laurence Cox