The launch for Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen’s new book, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism (Pluto, 2014) took place at the annual Historical Materialism conference at SOAS, London earlier this month. Below is both a video of the event, and the authors’ written presentation. You can find out more about the book on the Pluto website, here.
We Make Our Own History explores the relationship between Marxism and social movements, and in particular how this works in the specific historical period that we are calling the twilight of neoliberalism. Before opening up for our guests on the panel, we want to try and summarize the key arguments in the book.
The relationship between activism and theory
In We Make Our Own History, 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 care about theory? And where does Marxism come into it?
To answer that question, we discuss what it means to become an activist. Initially, we turn to activism because we find that something is not right, and we discover that what is wrong cannot be fixed through the “normal” channels. So to become an activist is to learn that the system does not work as it claims and to recognize 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 connect our own issues with other people’s and create solidarity in opposition to given power structures. In this process, we confront some very big questions about the system we are up against and how best to challenge it. As we answer these questions we produce a distinct form of theoretical knowledge – what we call movement theory.
So theory in this political sense is a tool that we as activists develop and use in order to figure out what is happening to us, why it is happening, and what to do about it. It is shaped by these practical concerns. And this book is an attempt to reclaim Marxism as a theory from and for social movements. It is not an attempt to defend a specific “line” or “school”, but an effort to develop a way of thinking about collective action that can be useful for participants in social movements. So we are taking EP Thompson’s approach: “The point is, that Marx is on our side; we are not on the side of Marx”.
But what is it about Marxism that makes it relevant to social movements, and what does Marxism add to our understanding of social movements? Marxism is a body of theory that was developed from and in dialogue with the struggles of social movements that have been central to the making of the modern world –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. Due to its origins in struggles to change the world, Marxism is marked – in our view – above all by its commitment to a view of historical processes and social structures as originating in and through human praxis. And this leads to a specific view of social movements.
A dialectic and developmental view of collective agency
In We Make Our Own History, we try to articulate this through a dialectical conception of collective 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. On the one hand, we argue for a developmental understanding of social movement from below that encompasses a spectrum of practices rather than a single kind of activity – running from the local rationalities of how people live their lives through everyday forms of resistance, joined-up campaigns, broad “social movement projects” for a different kind of society and revolutionary moments, and try to make sense of how activists can move from one towards the other both practically and through collective learning.
On the other hand, we see the collective agency of elites 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 their different outcomes. It is politically crucial to understand both sides of this equation properly and in comparable terms – rather than, for example, treating one side as agency and the other side as structure – if we want to be able to see our conflicts clearly and win them.
Historical capitalism and the twilight of neoliberalism
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 analyse neoliberalism as a social movement from above which was able to gain allies in response to the economic and political crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and succeeded in reasserting the power of capital on a global scale. This reassertion appears in the emergence of a new geography of production which has enabled transnational capital to escape the postwar social compacts with organized labour in the global North and – simultaneously – to exploit the vast masses of unorganized labour in the global South. It also appears in the vast expansion of market logic through processes of accumulation by dispossession. In doing so, neoliberalism has reversed many of the victories that social movements from below won in the first part of the twentieth century – generating deepening inequalities, persistent trajectories of uneven development, and the swelling of unwanted populations across the North-South axis.
However, we also argue that neoliberalism is moving into its twilight years. At the heart of the crisis which has rocked the world-system from 2007 onwards are the very same accumulation strategies that have allowed neoliberalism to restore profits for the one per cent – in particular the spectacular financialization of the capitalist economy since the early 1970s. In this context, global elites are foundering – they have no credible plan B. Instead, the response to the crisis has come in the form of “more of the same”, at the same time as the geopolitical power structures which underpinned this project are steadily unravelling.
And the response to the groundswell of popular protest is primarily coercive – a symptom, as Gramsci noted, of the decline of a hegemonic formation. Historically, any strategy of accumulation has had a sell-by date, for political as well as economic reasons: it proves difficult to sustain the alliances on which they rest for more than a few decades, as the gains for allies decline and the scope for political flexibility declines.
Social movements and revolutionary moments
Lastly, we argue that the end of any given form of capitalism is not simply an automatic function of its declining rate of profitability etc. but that the collapse of a particular form of hegemony is typically prompted by a social movement project from below, causing a hegemonic crisis in at least one global region. Even where – as in 1848 and 1968 – such revolutionary waves are quickly defeated, the hegemonic crisis cannot be resolved within the terms of the old arrangements and requires something new, be it liberal-constitutional regimes or neoliberalism. More positively, we have seen the welfare state compromise, independence from empire or indeed the new Latin American struggles emerge as elites have found it impossible to restore the status quo ante.
Because we are making an agency-centred argument, we are no more interested in a simple celebration of “how great contemporary movements are” than we are in a structuralist form of defeatism. Our argument is rather that – if we are in “the twilight of neoliberalism” – the most urgent question becomes what will replace it; and that this is something which will be resolved politically, as movements from above and below compete to offer alternative, potentially hegemonic ways forward.
As noted, elites are struggling to articulate a new strategy capable of gaining enough support on any side to offer a way forward – very differently to the situation following 1968 where neoliberals were able to move from the margins to the centre in a relatively short space of time. This opens a space of possibility for movements – not to articulate “the right answer” on paper, but rather to engage in the work of formulating a broad alliance around a social movement project that effectively and powerfully expresses a combination of movement struggles capable of displacing “zombie neoliberalism” and enabling a world fit for human habitation.
So in this context we are not presenting We Make Our Own History as “the answer” but rather as a way of thinking about the problem which movements are currently struggling with: how to grasp the nature of the forces we are up against, the roots of their historical strength and the nature of their current weakness, and how to think about what might be needed in order to develop a potentially hegemonic movement project from below in this crisis. Thankyou.