It’s 2016 and the phrase ‘it’s the economy stupid’ lacks currency. Is this neoliberalism’s swansong? In this article, an extended version of a blog post for the Sociological Review, Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen examine the ‘organic crisis’ engendered by Brexit and the election of Trump and what the future holds for social movements now the status quo has been upset.
Something remarkable has happened in the Anglophone countries where neoliberalism first came to power. After over two decades of popular resistance to trade deals, from the Zapatistas’ 1994 rebellion against NAFTA and the 1999 Seattle WTO summit protest, the U.S. has elected a candidate openly opposed to such deals, and TTIP may not survive the experience. Meanwhile, the UK – where conventional wisdom has had it that state economic policy always takes its lead from the City of London – now has a government attempting to set its course for “hard Brexit”.
Of course neoliberalism is not yet over, and the power of existing money will no doubt find ways to make itself heard in the Trump administration as well as in Brexit-land. But the social and electoral coalitions which Thatcher and Reagan stitched together to push through a monetarist revolution are no longer delivering what for the past third of a century has seemed an unstoppable neoliberal juggernaut, experimented in the global South and later expanded across Europe.
As recently as 2014, when we wrote We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, the subtitle was one of the main points where activists and scholars alike disagreed with us, arguing that neoliberalism was here to stay. We had written:
‘In our view, whether 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 which underpin them. The real question is more one of how much damage neoliberalism will do in its prolonged death agonies; and, even more importantly, what (or more sociologically, who) will replace it and how.’
Our argument has three steps. Firstly, capitalist accumulation strategies, and the hegemonic projects which are needed to keep them in power, have historically come and gone. The high point of organised modernity – expressed as post-war Keynesianism in the west, state socialism in the east and national-developmentalism in the South – lasted perhaps three decades; fascism outside Iberia lasted at most two. The analysis can be extended back to the sixteenth century. On historical grounds alone, there is no good reason to project neoliberalism indefinitely into the future.
Secondly, already in 2014 the power and effectiveness of neoliberalism as a social project was visibly on the wane. We noted the spread and alliance of popular movements against neoliberalism; the increasing constraints on the US’ geopolitical reach; neoliberalism’s declining ability to deliver the goods to its core supporters and its inability to articulate a longer-term strategy in the crisis; and its increasing delegitimation – marked not least by the spread of the word itself as a term in critical discourses.
Thirdly, and most immediately relevant, such hegemonic arrangements are hard to sustain because they have to satisfy many different social groups; this is the point of Gramsci’s arguments about consent and coercion. The history of the construction and demise of organized capitalism shows how complex are the social alliances required to sustain any given accumulation strategy; in the systemic crisis of “1968”, groups whose needs were not met by the organised capitalist settlement were central in undermining it – although the outcome was not one they had intended. As any particular strategy of accumulation wears on, it is likely to encounter diminishing overall returns, leading to decreasing rewards for some at least of its original allies as well as declining flexibility when faced with new challenges (consider the problems now faced by western elites dealing with climate change, for example) – and, significantly, myriad forms of political discontent and popular unrest.
In our analysis, we pointed particularly to the situation of the white “middle class” groups whose support was fundamental to the first wave of Thatcherism and Reaganism. If the spoils from neoliberalisation benefitted that generation, their children now struggle to enter the housing ladder and face crippling education debt: key elements of the material offer then made no longer work. Part of the right-wing roar that can be heard around the Anglophone world today comes from these betrayed loyalists. The fact that this roar has taken the form – as Akwugo Emejulu noted of Brexit and Robin Kelley of Trump’s victory – of an attempt to shore up the wages of whiteness through electoral support for xenophobic and racist agendas is undoubtedly a political challenge of the first order for the left in the years ahead.
These middle classes, however, are not the only group voting for Trump, or Brexit: and this is part of the point of a Gramscian analysis. A successful accumulation strategy needs a wide base of social consent, at the same time as other groups are targetted for coercion. But hegemony in complex societies involves complex alliances: the US election was not just about race, or class, or gender. Equally importantly – and more hopefully – Trump’s coalition (a mere quarter of US electors) is no new hegemonic force, or not yet: its incoherence (like that of Brexit) is the opposite of how neoliberalism appeared when it moved in on the declining Keynesian order. The Trump coalition’s emphasis on coercion and its racist revanchism may be the early intimations of the emergence of a twenty-first century fascism, but what these facets underline most of all is the fact neoliberalism’s hegemony is crumbling, while a new and lasting order has not been put in its place.
As in every such organic crisis, the future is open; unlike the crisis of the 1970s, there is no new movement from above waiting in the wings – at the end of the day, the elites do not at this point have a coherent Plan B. What there – and it is crucial for the left not to lose sight of this in the current conjuncture – is is a long history of popular movements from below coming together against neoliberalism, and more recently against austerity. The strength of Occupy and indignad@s, of Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, of Corbyn and Sanders, of DiEM25 and Blockupy, is not one of tactics or organisation – and fetishising these as an identity marker for particular political traditions is a sure path to division and defeat in the present conjuncture. Rather, the strength of these experiences lies in exploring and developing the ability of movements from below to work together and to articulate a different kind of “social movement project”, capable of gathering the sort of broad social support that might enable a better long-term outcome from the twilight of neoliberalism.
Laurence Cox is senior lecturer in sociology, National University of Ireland Maynooth and co-edits the social movement journal Interface. He is active in a wide range of movements and has published Marxism and Social Movements (2013) and Understanding European Movements (2013).
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is associate professor of sociology, University of Bergen and research fellow at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. He tweets at @alfgunvald. He is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India (2012) and co-editor of Social Movements in the Global South (2011) and Marxism and Social Movements (2013).
We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism is available to buy from Pluto here.
 This is an extended version of a blog post for the Sociological Review blog, which first appeared on November 18th 2016. We are grateful to the editors for permission to rework the material in that post.