Last week’s well-attended roundtable – Beyond Anti-Austerity? The Possibilities and Limits of Movements Resisting Neoliberalism – provided much interesting food for thought on a number of big questions facing contemporary movements of the left. What follows is a brief summary of speakers’ contributions and some thoughts about the key threads of the probing, free-wheeling discussion that followed.
Drawing on her Global Uprisings project, Marianne Maeckelbergh began the discussion by pointing to three recent movement moments that appear to indicate a shift in the sense of what’s possible. The first occurred in Greece, where the 2011 occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens seemed to indicate a shift in patterns of activist thought and action. Following Greece’s frequent General Strikes (often accompanied by volleys of teargas and molotov cocktails), the occupation aimed at a less confrontational attitude and provided a space for meaningful exchange between activists and the general public. Second, in March 2012 a general strike in Spain moved contention in the opposite direction to more confrontational tactics. In addition to union-supported strike action was the development of a consumer strike. Neighbourhood assemblies gathered in some 70 small marches that proceeded to the city centre closing down businesses on the way. While small businesses were persuaded to close their doors until the next day, large businesses faced pickets, blockades and sabotage. Third, Marianne reflected a different kind of shift in recent protests against police violence in Ferguson. Here protests are clearly targeting the racist violence of the state (with Black American’s experience of austerity a clearly important contextual factor). The spark was, of course, the death of a man who had done no wrong. Thus the police are read as ‘no longer punishing dissent but punishing existence’. One frequent tactic the state uses against dissent is to mark protesters as bad people engaged in punishable behaviour, but if punishment is meted out regardless of behaviour that tactic loses its power. To some extent the police are, then, on the back foot – unwilling to allow its violence back onto the front page and robbed of some its power in delegitimising angry protest it allows greater participation in more confrontational activities. As Marianne noted, these three rather diverse cases all indicate moments when there is an opening in the possibilities for protest. These are not predictable moments, of course, but often what we (as political actors or as academics) are looking for to understand potential for social change.
The second speaker, Jamie Matthews, reflected on his ethnographic research in Occupy London and raised two important areas of tensions in the thought and practice of occupiers. The first is the valorisation of novelty. For old hands novelty may be primarily a matter of ‘new faces’, offering a sense of excitement in possibilities. For newer participants the experience of consensus decision making, direct action and so on led to a central claim on the unique nature of Occupy. This has some negative repercussions as the perception of Occupy as completely unique marks out all other forms of activism as somehow inferior or tainted, thus damaging the potential for learning from the past or creating important alliances. Second, the movement’s claim to be (or speak for) the 99% also creates some difficulties. First, there is a tension between, on the one hand, naming the condition of an injustice (i.e. making inequality visible) and, on the other, actually describing a group of people who are acting. The actual experience of many occupiers, however, is that although they may start from the position of participating as a citizen (rather than an activist, and therefore being one of ‘the people’) the daily involvement in Occupy moves participant ineluctably to the position of ‘activist’ and into a collective identity that is set apart from ‘the people’. Is it possible to maintain majoritarian claims in these circumstances?
Our next contribution concerned the complex relationship between authoritarianism and civil society in Egypt. Nadim Mirshak reflected on very recent fieldwork examining the provision of non-state education in a country whose literacy rate is less than 60%. Nadim noted a history in which Islamists had frequently taken on key roles in civil society as a shrinking state failed to maintain its core commitments. Civil society potentially holds the promise of being a space for the generation of counter-hegemony and it was interesting to hear the limitations and opportunities in this rapidly changing context. The reassertion of authoritarian control in Egypt has generated strong limitations, of course, with 3-15 years imprisonment a possible outcome of any participation in protest. Moreover, many civil society actors find their own activities – even free English language tuition – described as fomenting protest. With this background, competition among civil society organisations for limited resources, self-policing and an unwillingness to publicly support democratisation all appear as massive problems. Against this, Nadim presented evidence of positive movement in, for instance, the development of universities as the last bastion of protest, and the critical reflection of some civil society actors on the political process that has taken them this far. Spreading lessons for the future much more widely appears an important move at this juncture.
Next up, Colin Barker offered two key questions for how we think about contemporary movements. The first relates to the emphasis on politics rather than economics. Despite the obvious importance of the economy in generating the injustices that contemporary left movements struggle agains, the key slots are about democracy not austerity, while both unions and parties are rejected. The second question – directed primarily at academics – was ‘why is the study of social movements separated from the study of industrial relations?’ While the question contains a critique of the isolationism of academic fields it also indicates a real concern with the way that both activists and scholars theorise their opponents. Colin briefly traced the crisis in union membership as a crisis in a particular kind of unionism and highlighted Jane McAlevey’s Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell) as indicating the existence of an alternative, much more democratic and militant, approach to union organising already taking place in the US. The overarching problem that Colin’s talk indicated was the different directions in which two wings of current left movements were heading. While there were some ways in which Occupy re-energised unionism (at least around OWS), in general the ‘movement of the streets and the squares’ and the union movement seem largely at crossed purposes. How can these powerful voices come together?
Our final speaker, Carl Death, moved the question of ‘beyond anti-austerity?’ in a rather different direction. Instead of focusing on tactics or social actors primarily he wondered if there were ways of conceptualising neoliberal power that moved beyond the simple oppositions implied by words like oppression and resistance. As such he highlighted two examples of ‘counter conducts’ from South Africa. On the one hand a successful occupation – part of the wider series of service delivery protests happening there – demonstrated a radical but non-violent counter-conduct with demonstrators not only indicating new ways of protesting but also resulting in new elections to local council wards. More provocatively, Carl used the example of Pexing (or izikhothane) among affluent teenagers. The craze involves getting together in groups to demonstrate affluence by destroying expensive objects of consumer desire, with participants focusing sharply on the precise value of items destroyed. While one might have to work hard to interpret this as containing the seeds of a critique of consumerism it does highlight the creation of an alternative culture cutting against mainstream values. This raises uncomfortable questions about the multiple forms that the subversion of dominant techniques for the reproduction of ‘responsible subjects’ might entail.
The fascinating discussion that followed reflected the coming together of activist and academic concerns in understanding the potential for opposing neoliberalism in the current period. While the open nature of the discussion defies easy summary, a few threads that I found particularly thought-provoking follow.
A number of questions seemed intent on the search for a social actor or ideological current appropriate to the opposition of neoliberalism. While some contributors sought a return to class and internationalism, others viewed the development of a unified narrative against neoliberalism to rally around. The importance of electoral politics and the crisis of social democracy was highlighted – while the cultural liberalism of the latter retains influence its focus on the welfare state and radical democracy has declined. Yet for others there is no going back to any ‘golden age’, not least because it may have been social democracy itself that opened the doors for neoliberalism in government: if one accepts the ‘class compromise’ then one is necessarily in league with one’s opponents.
In seeking a source or locus of power there seemed to be a connected critique of horizontalism in Occupy (as in the alter-globalisation movement), that bases its appeal for more direct democracy at least in part on prioritising liberty for the individual. For some this form of individualism seemed a direct import from neoliberalism itself, while for others it seemed an issue of too much diversity for coherence. However, against this Marianne noted the impossibility of 100% agreement on a political programme given the need for a truly international response to the neoliberal project. Instead we need to imagine the new forms of collaboration that are viable for creating discussion around alternatives and prompting action despite the ongoing existence of disagreement. Jamie also pointed to the development of Podemos from the Spanish occupations, operating on radical democratic principles and winning seats in the European Parliament just a few months after it was established.
The forms of engagement with neoliberalism was also raised in this context. Many riots of the last few years can be read as responses to neoliberalism but can they be seen as a political statement or a continuation of protest by other means? Given the stakes, can violence be an acceptable means of pressure? Whatever one’s position on these long-standing controversies it is clear that the search for new forms are as vital as the search for new narratives. As Colin noted in summing up, a new narrative opposing neoliberalism may be powerful, but only if embedded in organisation, identity and power. While it is not clear what form this might take at present, it has to start from the position ‘what would things be like if we ran this place?’