The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Why Social Movements Matter: fighting for social justice.

In his recent book Why Social Movements Matter: an introduction (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018) Laurence Cox provides a fascinating and highly stimulating engagement with social movements and popular struggles. He does much more than simply providing an accessible introduction. He develops a way of analysing and understanding social movements, which is fundamentally different from traditional, academic approaches. In this blog post, I will provide a critical engagement with Cox’s key contributions.

The first key contribution is the way Cox introduces his own assessment by distinguishing it from the work of what Antonio Gramsci called ‘traditional intellectuals’. These traditional intellectuals, who often operate in our universities, have often had only very little experience themselves of being part of a movement and are generally identifying themselves with how society is. If there is a call for action, then it is generally made from a ‘superior’ position of telling others what they should do, the expert instructing others about their role. Unsurprisingly, traditional intellectuals are unlikely to be part of any radical effort to change existing social and power structures. They ‘almost always work within hierarchical institutions in which their job, their promotion or their next engagement depends on pleasing people above them, who are in turn closer to power, cultural authority and sheer wealth. Given what social movements are, it is hardly surprising that (at the most basic) the only way to advance one’s career while mentioning movements is to misrepresent them’ (P.xi).

By contrast, Cox writes from the perspective and the experience of someone who has always been involved in social movement struggles in some form or another. His attempt is not to state categorically what social movements are and what not, or what they should be. Rather, the purpose of his book is to contribute to the collective learning about social movement struggles with a focus on fighting more successfully for social justice in the future. Unlike traditional intellectuals, ‘organic intellectuals’ ‘need to keep on stepping out of the door and into the street, placing ourselves in the unpredictable situation with our allies which is movement organising, and then in the unpredictable situation with our opponents that is conflict’ (P.113). It is an effort to contribute to ‘praxis-oriented thinking … a concrete examination of the real potential of a particular group of actors’ (P.75) and the development of a ‘good sense’, which can provide a basis for policies of social justice.

The challenge for academics is clear, according to Cox. As ‘organic intellectuals, ‘we need more serious reflection on the relationship between ideas and social agency in academia, in the form of a praxis-oriented sociology of knowledge: what are we doing when we theorise? And, more sharply, do our ideas reflect actual battles and contribute to these or do they reflect and justify our own situation, relying on the role of “traditional intellectuals” and hence seeking “objective” intellectual legitimacy?’ (PP.92-3)

Second, Cox highlights that social movements are always present and always involved in struggles. ‘What makes something a movement rather than something else is above all conflict: movements develop (and argue over) a sense of “we” which is opposed to a “they” (the state, corporations, a powerful social group, a form of behaviour) in a conflict which is about the shape and direction of society …’ (P.xii). This is far removed from understanding politics as a technocratic undertaking, in which experts advice governments on how to formulate policies in the general interest. Cox correctly points out that if there is inequality, then because some people benefit from it. ‘Exploitation persists because the wealthy benefit; and cultural stigmatisation persists because those at the top of the hierarchy quite like it that way’ (P.15). Social justice can, therefore, only be obtained through struggle.

Third, similar to earlier work with Alf Nilsen (see We make our own history – A call to action!) Cox argues that all existing structures of oppression and injustice are the result of struggles between social movements from above and social movements from below – ‘movements made the world we live in’. In these struggles, at times popular struggles succeed in establishing alternative institutions, which in turn, however, may then be co-opted by powerful forces. ‘Understanding this paradoxical dialectic helps us to see both the ways in which movements from below have helped make the modern world, and the ways in which movements from above have reshaped our movements and what were once their institutions’ (P.55). Once it is acknowledged that (oppressive) structures are the result of human action, then suddenly resistance becomes possible and struggles for social justice meaningful. Structures can be perceived ‘as produced and maintained by agents and alliances that can be opposed and disaggregated’ (PP.76-7). As exploitation is the result of human action, it can also be changed.

And yet, as important as this focus on the possibilities of agency is, I am wondering whether Cox’s rejection of any kind of serious analysis of structure is not too one-sided, or voluntarist, as some would argue. Of course, Cox is correct when he pronounces that ‘we cannot deduce from people’s structural situation what they will actually do’ (P.63). Nevertheless, I would argue that the capitalist social relations of production, within which we live, exhibit a set of structuring conditions, which circumscribe to some extent what kind of strategies of resistance social movements can pursue. In fact, although Cox does mention class here and there in this book, he never really discusses the key features of capitalism and here especially capitalism’s relentless, structural pressure towards outward expansion into new areas of exploitation in order to overcome its inherent crisis tendency.

By overlooking the structuring conditions of capitalism, Cox fails to acknowledge that it is within capitalist production organised around wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production, where exploitation takes place. This does not have to imply a narrow focus on the workplace. Drawing on feminist social reproduction theory and world ecology, we can define capitalist accumulation broadly thus including struggles in the sphere of social reproduction in homes and struggles over environmental exploitation and the way struggles over gender, race and ethnicity, for example, are internally related to struggles over exploitation at the workplace. As it stands, there is a danger that Cox overlooks the historical specificity of capitalism, which is essential for our understanding of possibilities of resistance.

Overall, however, this criticism should not distract from the crucial contributions of this book and its relevance for our times. It is a powerful reminder for critical academics of what is at stake in the ways we operate in the workplace and relate to social movements. This is a must-read for all those, who are interested in making a real difference through their activist-academic work, be it as students, teachers or researchers, be it in schools, colleges or universities!

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy

University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

22 May 2019

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