In an exclusive piece for Pluto, Laurence Cox and Alf Nilsen discuss the relevance and central message of their new book – We Make Our Own History.
April 2014: In Dongguan in the Pearl River delta, tens of thousands of Chinese workers walk out of factories owned by a Taiwanese company that produces shoes for global brand leaders like Nike and Reebok in protest over the corrupt handling of their pensions. Following in the wake of the strikes at a Honda-owned factory in Foshan – also in the Pearl River delta – in 2010, the April walkouts in Dongguan are expressive of a new wave of labour militancy in China, which increasingly targets the transnational corporations that have been so central to the export-driven growth strategy of the Chinese authorities, and which have been successful in winning wage gains for the country’s working classes.
May 2014: In Spain’s elections for the European Parliament, a new political party – Podemos – wins 5 seats and 7.9 per cent of the vote (approximately 1.2 million votes). The unexpected levels of support for the party are seen as a continued expression of the widespread anger against unemployment and austerity policies that was initially voiced by the Indignados. “We want to build a political majority”, argued the party leader Pablo Iglesias as he described the politics of Podemos, ”that reflects the social majority of Spain.” In aspiring to do this, Podemos is developing and deepening the project of mass-based, participatory democracy that started to take shape in public squares around the country during the 15-M protests of 2011 and 2012.
August 2014: Angry crowds gather on the streets of Ferguson to protest the death of Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer who fired six rounds into the unarmed teenager’s body. Holding their hands over their heads, they confront a heavily militarized police force that deploys armoured vehicles and fires teargas and rubber bullets at the protestors. At the time of writing, the Missouri governor has ordered the National Guard to “restore law and order” in the town. However, one protestor’s words suggest that what is a crisis of law and order for some is a possibility for change for others: “We can reclaim our community. This is a war, and we are soldiers on the front line”.
Between them – the labour militancy in Dongguan, the support for Podemos in the European elections, and the street protests in Ferguson – these events reveal to us the fault lines of the neoliberal project that has reshaped societies across the global North and the global South over the past 30 years. Chinese workers challenge a new geography of production that has enabled transnational capital to ruthlessly exploit the working classes of the global South; Spanish voters express their anger at austerity regimes that drive the dispossession of public goods and deepen already entrenched inequalities; citizens in Ferguson reject the increasingly coercive and authoritarian ways in which political authorities govern the racialized margins of neoliberal societies. And crucially, these protests are part and parcel of a growing tide of popular unrest in which economic justice and the failure of political representation and political systems are key issues for those who mobilize and take to the streets to call for change.
Our new book, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, intends to address this conjuncture, a conjuncture in which the ruling classes can no longer rule as before and ordinary people are no longer willing to be ruled in the old way. Written over a decade in which neoliberalism has become increasingly mired in economic and political crisis and social movements have converged around radical demands for systemic change, the book aims – above all – to speak to activists who are involved in the hard work of making another world possible. To achieve this, we present a reading of Marxism as a theory that is relevant to the praxis that animates movements in struggle. But why should social movements be concerned with theory? And why is Marxism important?
These questions are perhaps best addressed by considering what it means to be an activist involved in building a social movement. We become activists because we find that something is not right in the world, and – more importantly – we discover that what is wrong cannot be fixed through the “normal” channels. To become an activist, then, is to learn that the system does not work as it claims and to move towards the understanding that to achieve change we need to organise and create pressure. For some activists, this learning process continues as we realize that the system itself is part of the problem and needs to be changed: we come to connect our own issues with those of others and to create solidarity in opposition to given power structures. In this process, we confront some very big questions about the nature of the system we are up against and how best to challenge it, and in finding answers to these questions we produce a distinct form of theoretical knowledge – what we call movement theory.
Theory, then, is not the product of abstract scholastic exercises. On the contrary, it is a tool that we use as activists to figure out what is happening to us, why it is happening, and what to do about it. We Make Our Own History is an attempt to contribute to the toolbox that activists have at their disposal, and it does so by reclaiming Marxism as a theory from and for social movements. It is all too easy to lose sight of the basic fact that Marxism is a body of theory that was developed out of and crafted in dialogue with the struggles of social movements that have been absolutely central to the making of the modern world – ranging from the popular movements that contested the rise of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century to revolutionary struggles against authoritarian ruling classes, imperialist wars, colonial rule, and capitalism itself in the twentieth century. What we set out do in We Make Our Own History is to bring Marxism back to the frontlines of the multiple ongoing struggles to make other worlds possible. Crucially, ours is not an attempt to defend a specific “line” or “school”, but an effort to develop a way of thinking about collective action that is based on Marxist theory, and which can be useful for movement participants.
Now, if we are trying to recover Marxism as a theory from and for social movements, we believe the place to start is in relation to agency – both the popular agency of the movements that ordinary people build to defend their needs, but also the agency of elite groups that try to organize society according to their interests. Therefore, in We Make Our Own History, we argue for an understanding of social movement from below that encompasses a range of practices from everyday forms of resistance to revolutionary struggles and try to make sense of how activists can move from one towards the other through collective learning. Conversely, we propose that the agency of elites should be thought of in terms of social movements from above, and suggest ways of thinking about how this agency is exercised through superior access to economic, political and cultural resources of power. Seen through this lens, the worlds that we inhabit and the systems that we confront are the products of previous rounds of struggle, and this book is written in the conviction that, in the current conjuncture, it is imperative that we understand both sides of this equation properly.
Towards this end, We Make Our Own History puts forward an analysis of historical capitalism – that is, the capitalist world-system as it has developed from the age of enclosures to the neoliberal era – in terms of how its trajectory has been shaped by struggles between social movements from above and social movements from below. In particular, we detail how neoliberalism emerged as a social movement from above in response to the economic and political crisis of the late 1960s, how the neoliberal project has reasserted the power of capital on a global scale, and how the current crisis of neoliberalism is rooted in the very strategies that enabled the project to become hegemonic in the first place. Based on this analysis, we move on to consider the worldwide protests against the neoliberalism as a movement wave comparable to those that shook the world in 1848 and 1968. Drawing on the experiences and trajectories of movements from below across the globe, we try to propose possible answers to that very fundamental question: how do we win?
Neoliberalism, like all other forms of capitalism before it, will come to an end; and we are already living through its twilight. The question is rather what will come next: in particular, if our movements can contribute to broadening the conflict beyond neoliberalism to capitalism, patriarchy and the racialized global order altogether. These are big pictures, but not insuperable ones: class societies too come and go, as do forms of patriarchy and racism. We Make Our Own History is written as a contribution to the struggle of movements from below to make our own, common, history after the twilight of neoliberalism finally fades to black.