Thursday, 11 September 2014

We are the authors and actors of our own history

By Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, ROAR Magazine

Neoliberalism is in crisis. Some of the elements of this are fairly obvious: the financial crisis of recent years and elites’ inability to chart an effective strategy for long-term profitability; the decline of US geopolitical hegemony, most visibly in its one-time backyard of Latin America and the strategically central Middle East and North African region; a legitimacy crisis around surveillance and military intervention more broadly; severe problems with making the WTO, FTAA and other such arrangements actually produce the intended results; the EU’s increasing inability to secure mandates for austerity in referenda or elections; not to mention the medium-term threats to fixed assets (and supporters) caused by climate change.

To say that neoliberalism is in crisis is not to say that it is powerless, or that it is not causing immense suffering across the world in many different ways. It is to say that — like all previous forms of capitalism before it — it is running out of time: it is ceasing to work for many of the groups which were once central for the alliance that constructed neoliberal hegemony; it is failing to chart a survival course for capitalist elites; and it is struggling to manage everyday problems. Coercion, however terrifying we may find it, is not a viable long-term strategy.

It is important to say this in the face of arguments which — rightly horrified or terrified by the realities of neoliberalism — ascribe omnipotence or inevitability to its continuation. Watching the screen (increasingly of smartphones or tablets rather than TV or newspapers), transfixed by the daily dose of violence and a sense of powerlessness, such arguments remain caught within their own local realities — taking the last couple of decades as defining of human existence, but also taking what is available to an increasingly narrow mediasphere as defining What Is Happening. Put another way, they constitute elaborate rationalizations of personal experience without being able to stand outside the structures that constitute that experience, either historically or in terms of reading the world from below, in terms of popular struggles.

In our new book We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism we write:

Premature Obituaries and Zombie Neoliberalism

Almost as soon as any new movement from below appears on the radar screen of the North’s elites, writers proclaim it dead, irrelevant, or past its prime. This has been so for the Zapatistas (now celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their uprising), for the global ‘movement of movements’ against neoliberalism (despite events in Latin America), for the movement against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (despite everything) and increasingly for anti-austerity movements. In part, of course, these are deliberate attempts to write off movements by apologists for our current regimes: to misquote Howard Zinn (1999), we might wonder why it is necessary to proclaim movements dead again and again.

Another reason for this obituary-writing lies in how journalists, academics, literary writers and so on are trained. There is a natural tendency to defend one’s own hard-won intellectual capital: where this consists of a particular way of writing about how things are at present, and of ‘business as usual’ tendencies into the future, anything which suggests that there may be more to the present than meets an eye focused on routines, and that the future may not yet be written in stone, will be unwelcome. There is also a need to have something to say about everything, and to appear to know something about any possible subject of conversation (‘relevance’, for a very media-oriented value of the word). Given the complexity of reality and how little of it anyone can know (not to mention how pressures for intellectual productivity squeeze the time available for exploring new areas of knowledge), what is most needed is a stock of ready-made dismissals for whatever falls outside one’s own sphere of interest and actual knowledge (see Sotiris 2013).

For us, the most interesting part of the obituary-writing process is that engaged in by movement activists themselves. This too has multiple roots: frustration and despair, a sense of having lost particular internal or external battles, a desire to argue for different strategies (a return to trade union struggles, a return to communities, the construction of utopias), and the belief that today’s movement is the strongest available argument for one’s own flavor of theory. Perhaps the most significant, though, is the experience this chapter addresses, of stalemate: of having made huge efforts, having moved further in recent years than most of us would have thought possible in the 1990s, and yet of having in some terms achieved so little.

The first chapter of We Make Our Own History discusses how theory can grow out of activist experience and what this means for “movement-relevant theory”, identifying Marxism as one such form of movement theorizing which activists can “repair, reuse and recycle”. We then ask how a Marxism oriented to the praxis of movements and communities can help activists change the rules of the socially constructed game which academic social movements research often wants to confine them to.

The central chapter rethinks Marxism as a theory of social movements, including both movements from below and the agency of the powerful and wealthy — the social movements from above whose weight we daily feel on our backs. We go on to use this framework to explore how movements from above and below have structured the historical development of capitalism, in its many changing forms. Finally, we discuss movements from below against neoliberalism and ask how they can win: what it means, in practice, to make another world possible.

Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, WeMake Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight ofNeoliberalism is now out from Pluto Press.