Viewpoint: Social Movements and Neoliberalism

Viewpoint: Social Movements and Neoliberalism

Laurence Cox (National University of Ireland, Maynooth) and Alf Gunvald Nilsen (University of Bergen) 


Fight, fight! Water is a human right!” This was one of the many slogans heard on the streets of downtown Detroit on 18 July, when angry citizens staged a march to protest the decision by the city’s Water and Sewerage Department to shut off the water supply of some 15,000 households with overdue water bills. Labelled a human rights violation by the United Nations, this draconian move occurs in a context which can arguably be thought of as the Ground Zero of US neoliberalism: Detroit’s declaration of bankruptcy in July 2013 followed decades of industrial decline, and the city is currently plagued by the country’s highest rates of poverty and a 14.6% unemployment rate. The water shut-offs are widely believed to herald the privatization of Detroit’s water supply.

By taking to the streets this July, Detroit’s citizens joined a growing tide of people across the globe coming together to protest the consequences of neoliberal policies on their livelihoods and standards of living. A recent report published by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has documented a steep increase in collective protests in the wake of the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008, with economic justice and anti-austerity being a key grievance for those mobilizing. A comprehensive study of the link between austerity policies and political protests between 1919 and 2009 across 28 European countries and 11 Latin American countries has revealed what its authors call “a clear and positive statistical association between expenditure cuts and the level of unrest.” Ours is a time in which the obvious links between deepening inequalities and the intensification of collective protests are increasingly causing global elites to be concerned about the future prospects of political stability. “Widening gaps between the richest and poorest citizens”, states the World Economic Forum’s most recent report on global risk scenarios, “threaten social and political stability as well as economic development”.

What are social movements – and how would we know if we saw one?

Academic commentators often present waves of protest such as the one that we are currently witnessing and the mobilizing work that energizes them as exceptional aberrations from the steady flow of normal politics. As a consequence of this, social movements tend to be thought of and studied in very narrow terms, as relatively marginal and rare eruptions of extra-parliamentary collective action, that for limited periods of time push agendas and demands in relation to public authorities through what the American sociologist Charles Tilly referred to as WUNC – worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.

In our new book We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism (Pluto Press, 2014) we argue that social movements should be thought of as much more than sporadic cases of mobilization outside the parliamentary parameters of the state. Instead, we propose that social movements are absolutely integral to how our societies are made and unmade across time.

This might seem like a tall statement, but let’s take a moment to think about some of the most fundamental rights and entitlements that many of us hold as citizens of democratic nation-states. Most obviously, the right to vote in elections was won as a result of determined struggles against barriers based on class, gender, and race that were imposed by elite groups that sought to monopolize political power for themselves. Similarly, those forms of social protection that are supposed to shield us from market vagaries and equalize life chances – including in different countries unemployment benefits or free public healthcare – have been won through labour struggles that forced capital to make concessions to radical demands for the redistribution of wealth and income. And crucially, the states within which we exercise these rights and claim these entitlements are themselves the outcome of revolutionary transformations propelled by social movements – in some cases deposing aristocratic ruling classes, in other cases overthrowing colonial overlords or defeating dictators.

Social movements of course shape the way we live our lives in other ways too – and not necessarily in ways that are related to formal rights and entitlements. The global movement wave of 1968 ushered in struggles for a “democratization of everyday life” in areas ranging from families and schools to prisons and mental hospitals, not forgetting the battles which placed nuclear power, the unquestioned rule of the car, consumerism or top-down “development” in question. Fundamentally, then, social movements are how we make societies – from the level of historical structures such as states via institutions such as alternative media and self-organised education projects to the level of everyday routines such as the weekend and limits to the length of the working day.

This also means that when we look for social movements, we are not just looking for the WUNC-displaying campaign that champions a single issue by levying pressure on extant parliamentary institutions. As we propose in We Make Our Own History, social movements encompass a whole range of collective practices, ranging from the day-to-day methods that less powerful groups develop to cope with and ward off the claims and demands of those who dominate them – for example, small scale acts of sabotage in the workplace – via the eruption of particular struggles in particular places over particular grievances – for example, wildcat strikes in Chinese factories – and coordinated campaigns that bring together different groups around issues of common concern – for example, the mobilization against large dam projects in India’s North-Eastern states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh – to oppositional projects that seek to fundamentally change the way in which social, economic and political power is organized and distributed in society – for example, the ongoing uprising of the Zapatistas in Mexico’s southeastern state of Chiapas.

These are all forms of practice that in different ways shape the ways in which we organize our societies, and, crucially, they are not watertight compartments. Rather, when we witness moments such as the present, which are rife with large-scale public protests that seek to bring about systemic changes, we are – in all likelihood – witnessing the crest of a wave that has built up over a long period time as a result of marginalized groups articulating their grievances, forging connections with other marginalized groups elsewhere, and constructing organizational infrastructures that enable claims to be made and alternatives to be envisioned and enacted.

Making new societies in neoliberal times

Our tumultuous present has a long lineage. The neoliberal project emerged as an elite response to economic crisis and the rise of a new wave of social movements as the golden age of post-war capitalism came to an end in the early 1970s. And the progress of neoliberalism over the past 35 years has reversed key victories and concessions won by labour movements and through anti-colonial struggles during the first half of the twentieth century. This is manifest, above all, in a dramatic expansion of the reach of market forces – for example, through the privatization of public goods such as water, which is currently being touted by the World Bank as a key policy initiative to shrink state involvement in infrastructure provision.

Resistance to this project emerged first in the form of protest against the austerity regime imposed by the World Bank and the IMF in collaboration with domestic elites throughout the global South in the 1980s and early 1990s. These were struggles that – not unlike labour unrest in the global North in the same period – sought to defend the gains that had been made and the victories that had been won by past movements. The mid-1990s – marked, above all, by the outbreak of the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas – witnessed the gradual crystallization of a new form of resistance in which single-issue campaigns converged around radical demands for systemic change – and the identification of neoliberal capitalism as a common enemy. The insistence that “another world is possible!” – a rallying cry for the summit protests of the late nineties and early 2000s – was the immediate outcome of this process, and the anti-austerity protests that we are witnessing today build on this foundation.

It is not just specific policies and their consequences – whether it is a question of water cut-offs in Detroit or free trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region – that are at stake in these protests. Most fundamentally, the social movements that energize these protests are challenging the way in which global elites have sought to make society over the past thirty-five years by widening the domain of the market. Indeed, in slogans such as “We live in a society, not an economy” and “We are not commodities in the hands of bankers and politicians” and in the activist demand for a thoroughgoing deepening of democracy – but also in the day-to-day practices of self-organisation by movements and communities in struggle – we can start to discern the contours of what it means to make new societies in neoliberal times.


Laurence Cox is Lecturer in Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Bergen. He blogs (mostly in English) at Shadows of Tender Fury.  Their most recent joint publication is We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism (Pluto Press, 2014).