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

A brief history of resistance to neoliberalism

What I did not know on 18 June 1999 was that this protest was the pinnacle of political expression of discontent with neoliberalism, which had been building for over 20 years. Since the 1980s there had been much resistance in other parts of the globe that had gone unnoticed in the global north. Since the 1980s, the world had seen uprisings, revolts, as well as ideas and forums for creating an alternative world, all contra neoliberalism - the economic and political doctrine which suggests that: 'growth and development depend on market competitiveness... [and] market principles should be allowed to permeate all aspects of life' (Standing, 2011: 1).

The neoliberal experiment, including shock therapy, began in the 1970s in Chile and was subsequently adopted by governments of other South American countries (Klein, 2007). At the global level, neoliberalism gained greater momentum through the implementation of the Washington Consensus in the 1990s. This refers to agreement by the G8 countries on the systematic implementation of a set of concrete policies. These covered:

no less than 10 policy areas in which decision makers worldwide accepted a neo-liberal agenda - fiscal discipline, public expenditure priorities, tax reform, financial liberalization, competitive exchange rates, trade liberalization, foreign direct investment, privatization and deregulation and property rights. (Callinicos, 2003: 2)

These policies were put into practice by almost all countries, as they reflected the wishes of the dominant elites in both the global south and north. The Washington Consensus became the dominant political and economic ideology of the countries that control global supranational political institutions, for example, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). While not all countries and governments are neoliberal, however, it is clearly the case that:

Neo-liberalization has in effect swept across the world like a vast tidal wave of institutional reform and discursive adjustment. While plenty of evidence shows its uneven geographical development, no place can claim total immunity (with the exception of a few states such as North Korea). (Harvey, 2007: 23)

Although the effects of neoliberalism gave rise to resistance in various South American countries in the 1980s (Walton and Seddon, 1994), it was the Zapatista uprising in the Chiapas region of Mexico in 1994 that marked the beginning of what has become known as the alternative globalization movement (AGM). The Zapatista struggle is considered to be a seminal moment because it pre-figured the new wave of global resistance to neoliberalism and was the 'first informational guerrilla movement' (Castells, 1997: 72) that used computer-mediated communication to send out a global call to mobilize against the neoliberal order. Further, its importance cannot be overstated, as Chesters and Welsh argue: 'the Zapatistas gave form and expression to the anti-capitalist attractor that was to subsequently animate protests globally' (2006: 109). The Zapatista movement organized the first intercontinental encuentro in Chiapas in 1996, then a second one in Spain in 1997. At the first encuentro the Peoples' Global Action was formed and 6000 people attended. This was a key moment because the issues of the global south started to be communicated to activist groups in the north - including British anarchist anti-capitalist networks such as Reclaim the Streets and Earth First!

Following on from the encuentros, resistance to neoliberalism continued to build; many movements from all around the globe started to communicate their particular grievances to each other; many agreed that the root cause of these grievances was the neoliberal policies implemented by political institutions (Kingsnorth, 2004; Mertes, 2004). It was at the Third Ministerial meeting of the WTO in Seattle in 1999 that a new movement crystallized into what became known as the AGM. This event is second only to the Zapatista uprising in terms of key moments of successful resistance to neoliberal political institutions. This is because the protesters, helped by delegates from the global south, managed to shut down the WTO meeting. It also forged a stronger connection between activists in the global north and south. Following on from this success, activists continued to protest against supranational summit meetings all over the globe; these included attempts to blockade and close down the Group of 8 or 20 (G8 or G20), the World Bank and the IMF. The latter two were targeted especially because of the perceived harmful neoliberal policies and practices they were imposing on the developing world. For example, structural adjustment policies, later known as poverty reduction programmes by the World Bank, and shock therapy implemented by the IMF, which usually included cuts to public services. Sometimes there were unintended harmful effects to the people of the developing world as a result of these policies, including curtailment of labour unions by state/paramilitary violence.

Throughout the last decade, as well as carrying out protests, parts of the AGM have started to consider alternatives to neoliberalism and have created the World Social Forum (WSF) and regional social forums. These emerged as a counter summit to the private World Economic Forum, held in Davos each year in January. The WSF also represents a very real criticism of the World Economic Forum - where civil society actors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not permitted to be part of the discussion; yet the World Economic Forum wields enormous power and makes policy decisions for the major global political institutions, which of course affect the lives of a great number of people. This exclusion has been called 'depoliticization' (Smith et al., 2007: 7). Thus one of the aims of the WSF is to repoliticize - that is, to reclaim the political. The WSF was created by Latin American and French activists, including Francisco Whitaker and Bernard Cassen, with support from Le Monde Diplomatique and the Brazilian Workers Party. The idea of the WSF is to address the depoliticization of and democratic deficit in global institutions (such as the World Bank and IMF). 'Participants in the WSF... argue that we need more global integration that allows a wider range of people - not just financial experts - to be involved in shaping decisions about how our economic and social lives are organized' (Smith et al., 2007: 7). The WSF, therefore, was set up to create an open space whereby an alternative world order can be discussed, formulated and structured, which is explicitly against neoliberalism, and the exclusivity of the above-mentioned undemocratic forums and institutions. The very first principle of the WSF is testament to this:

1. The World Social Forum is an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth. (Fisher and Ponniah, 2003: appendix 1, emphasis added)

In 2001, 2002 and 2003, the WSF took place in Porto Alegre in Brazil. However, since then it has moved around various countries and continents in the global south: Africa, South Asia, and to other parts of South America. Moving around different countries is an attempt to facilitate inclusivity around the globe, especially for those in the global south, who arguably have been denied political expression and participation in global political institutions, and, as such, have experienced substantial social injustices enacted on them by elites. As well as the WSF, there have been regional and local social forums since 2002, for example the European Social Forum, and the United States Social Forum (in 2007). These have been created to expand the idea of deliberative democracy and participation. The guiding idea is to create a globalization from below which counterposes the neoliberal globalization from above.

The WSF and regional and local social forums are network hubs for actors and organizations 'to exchange ideas, resources and information, build networks and alliances and promote concrete alternatives to neo-liberal globalization' (Smith et al., 2007: 27). The forums provide an 'open space' for reflective thinking organized horizontally around certain themes. The themes are broadly in keeping with the charter principles of the WSF; they are meant to reflect the local situation, but also the international dynamic and solidarity that people all around the world experience.

Factored into the first European Social Forum in Florence, in 2002, was an anti-war protest, which resulted in a million demonstrators taking to the streets. The WSF and regional forums see war as part of the neoliberal elite strategy whereby capitalist states and supranational elites invade countries to capture their resources (especially in the case of Iraq as an oil-rich country). Sections of the AGM continued to focus on anti-war activities and on 15 February 2003 (ahead of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003), 15 million people demonstrated against the war across the globe, which is the largest demonstration on record in the history of protests.

In 2005, parts of the AGM took a less radical turn, embodied through the Make Poverty History campaign. It is arguable that, given the emergence of the AGM phenomenon against neoliberalism, elites perhaps felt pressure to tackle some of the issues that were politically important to citizens. Hence the G8 summit meeting of 2005 was different from the others, because elites actually supported, sanctioned and encouraged one of the major mobilizations - the Make History Poverty coalition. Instead of all the mobilizations protesting against the G8, the Make Poverty History (MPH) coalition (which was the largest mobilization comprising over 460 NGOs and 250,000 people) was in support of the summit. This event coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the original Live Aid event, and the Live 8 pop concert (held in London) was to run alongside the MPH mobilization in Edinburgh during the G8 meeting. MPH and Live 8 therefore were closely connected: the organizers of both events had the support of the New Labour government, and certain public figures, such as Bono, Bob Geldoff and Richard Curtis, were privy to government meetings (see Hodkinson, 2005a).

Moreover, the mobilization of this coalition had been officially sanctioned and endorsed by the UK Labour government. The campaign was coordinated so the largest demonstration was held just before the G8 meeting in the UK (which held the presidency that year) and the main item on the agenda was Africa, trade and aid, with the overall aim of trying to reduce poverty in Africa. However, MPH was not the only mobilization present; the more radical anti-capitalist groups Dissent! network and the G8 Alternatives also planned to demonstrate and carry out protests and direct action activities against the G8 during the week of the summit meeting (1-6 July). The Dissent! network was predominantly, but not exclusively, an anarchist network consisting of loosely connected semi-autonomous affinity groups. This mobilization formed in 2003 and evolved out of previous networks such as Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets (Harvie et al., 2005). The G8 Alternatives, ideologically speaking, was a coalition of largely socialist and social democratic political groups, including the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Respect Party and the Stop the War Coalition. As well as these groups, public intellectuals from other organizations were also involved, including George Monbiot, Susan George (Vice President ATTAC France), Caroline Lucas (Green Party), Charles Abugre (Christian Aid), Dennis Brutus (a South African anti-apartheid activist) and Trevor Ngwanee (an anti-privatization activist from South Africa). Altogether, there were over 200 speakers from this group during the week of mobilizations.

To some extent the MPH campaign helped bring attention to some of the issues that the wider AGM was campaigning on, namely, poverty in Africa. However, at the same time, the AGM became more fragmented and the more radical elements became marginalized and their political tactics were thwarted. MPH sought legitimacy from the UK government and the G8 in the hope that their demands would be heard, but this meant certain compromises, including not discussing or being critical of neoliberalism generally or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This created some disquiet among other sections of the AGM. The feeling among some activist groups both within and outside of the MPH coalition was that all the hard work of campaigning against neoliberalism for nearly a decade had been undone in one fell swoop, since MPH had been co-opted by the UK government. The cooption allowed the UK government and the G8 to claim that they were listening to the AGM's 'legitimate' concerns, which enabled them to dismiss the more radical elements as trouble-makers and not really deal with the rising inequalities both in the global north or south.

Between 2005 and 2007, protests continued against supranational institutions; however, they were not so well attended and lost some of their political appeal after the 2005 MPH campaign. Just when things went quiet the banking crisis of 2008 occurred and recession took hold in the UK, the USA and parts of western Europe. The financial crisis of 2008 renewed interest in critical protest, and at the G20 meeting in London in 2009, the Climate Camp protesters took to the streets.

The financial crisis worsened through a double dip recession and the legitimacy - and even the actual existence - of democracy began to be called into question. Citizens started to ask: Why are governments unable to challenge corporate power and the banking system? Why are financiers writing the rules of the economy, should it not be our democratic representatives who are in control? This led to a new global movement known as Occupy, which emerged in 2011, the tactics of which were inspired by the uprisings in Tahrir Square and the subsequent revolution in Egypt, and the Indignados protests in Spain earlier in the same year.

The Occupy movement began in New York as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in September 2011. Activists formed an encampment in Zuccotti Park in the financial district of lower Manhattan, New York. The following quote sums up the aims of OWS:

OWS is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement... aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future. (Occupy Wall Street, 2011)

Although from an unofficial website, this quote does outline the main position of OWS and fits with other activist accounts of what Occupy is protesting against. In addition, a slogan that is widely used within the Occupy movement is 'we are the 99%' (Graeber, 2013). This is a common point of agreement or strength of feeling among Occupy activists.

Inspired by the events in New York, the Occupy movement spread to around 950 cities in 82 countries; most of the camps established as a result lasted until around February 2012. This was the last episode of major, global resistance to neoliberalism. Of course, contention is ongoing, but in terms of cycles it seems there is a downward swing at the moment.

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