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Home arrow Sociology arrow Bourdieu and Social Movements: Ideological Struggles in the British Anti-Capitalist Movement

Introduction. A New Era of Movement Understanding: A Bourdieusian Approach

One Friday afternoon the city of London came to a standstill. This was no ordinary Friday afternoon, it was 18 June 1999, when thousands of anti-capitalist demonstrators organized a carnival against capitalism. The city's commuters, the government, the police, and even me as a Master's (in politics) student (hoping to be a future academic) were taken by surprise, not only by the scale of the protests, but the language and statements used by the protesters - it was a 'carnival against capitalism'. The whole nation was taken unaware. Flash mobs appeared with samba bands beating drums, waving banners calling for revolution and an end to capitalism. Some protesters climbed on the police vans that had tried to mobilize in the face of this protest, others danced and juggled, and some smashed iconic corporate symbols like the golden arches that hang outside McDonald's restaurants. As somebody who was politically interested in social movements, I asked myself many questions: Who are these protesters? What organizations do they belong to? Why did I not hear about this 'planned protest'? Are they socialists? Are they anarchists? I knew the anarchist group Class War used to organize 'Stop the City' many years before, but where are they now? And where were the Socialist Workers Party? Who are Reclaim the Streets? I could not understand why this protest had not been announced beforehand. How naive I was. This was the era of the flash mob!

As well as being puzzled, I was also filled with excitement because, for years, I had felt exploited doing a number of low-paid, casual jobs with no union to protect me or my fellow workers from being fired. Or worse, a company simply asking the agency not to send me again while I sat waiting by the phone hoping the temp agency would ring to offer me another shift in a warehouse that I could not stand to be in, doing a job that I did not want to do. It seemed as if people had awakened from a slumber and realized workers were being exploited, the environment was being damaged, and corporations and the government needed to sit up and listen.

It is important to remember that, before this, the 1980s and 1990s were dark decades for the left in Britain. Indeed, the Thatcher governments had set about deliberately disarming the left (Thatcher, 1993). Britain had seen the defeat of one of the most powerful unions in history, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), following the bitter year-long strike of 1984-5. The subsequent curtailing of union power, along with deindustrialization, led to high levels of unemployment, two recessions and an unprecedented increase in mortgage interest rates. These factors had made workers fearful to the point of compliance, and thus able to be exploited.

This was the era of the expansion of neoliberalism - when it was believed that a market for everything should be created, public utilities and social housing should be sold off, and unions and collective action/bargaining curtailed. The individual consumer, not the citizen, should advance him- or herself at the expense of the group. Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan announced - proudly, I might add - that 'There is no alternative' (TINA) to capitalism. This, of course, was announced because of the collapse of the USSR on the international level, and defeat of the NUM in the UK. Disappointingly, 1997 saw a New Labour government elected which did nothing to repeal anti-union legislation installed by the Thatcher government. Academically speaking, Francis Fukuyama (1994) pronounced the end of history, while Mulgan (1994) expressed a similar sentiment when he claimed we were living in an anti-political age. Not to mention Anthony Giddens' (1998) Third Way, which was really the second way, making an attempt to present capitalism with a human face. So 18 June 1999, offered something else - a rejection of neoliberalism. People were standing up for themselves, unafraid.

The 21st century was almost upon us. This new movement and style of protest was about to shape the future of politics. It was going to be a very different century, one perhaps with a different type of political organizing, which needs a new understanding. This book is dedicated to understanding and explaining this movement, which emerged in Britain, but also its interaction with other groups and organizations that are from different parts of the world since we now live in a global era and are interconnected.

What I discovered was that the carnival against capitalism on 18 June 1999 was not the first of its kind nor would it be the last. It had connections to the uprisings in Mexico and parts of South America during the 1980s and 1990s. To begin to understand this movement we need to consider the political context from which it emerged. It is part of a wider resistance against neoliberalism. Therefore, we need to understand what neoliberalism is, where it began, and why and how actors, organizations and movements, including the British contingent of activists, are resisting it.

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