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, 23 December 2014

We make our own history – A call to action!

‘As we become political subjects on our own behalf, recognise ourselves in each other and see the connections between our different movements, we come closer to being able not only to articulate the hope of “another world”, but also to bring it about’ (P.209). With these words, Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen conclude their latest book We make our own history: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism (Pluto Press, 2014). In this blog post, I will provide a critical appraisal of this important book. 

The challenge to academia

The first important contribution by Cox and Nilsen is their challenge of traditional academic theorising and here especially its missing relevance for practice. ‘The academic mode of production … encourages the contemplative mode (critical or celebratory) and discourages a praxis-oriented one; the net effect … is to disengage theory from practice and construct a mystified relationship between the two’ (P.17). Problems are perceived as structurally generated and, therefore, beyond the possibility of being addressed. ‘This is often very welcome for the senior academics who act as professional gatekeepers, as it combines the display of great cleverness with the practical conclusion that there is nothing to be done – prefiguring a transition to a resigned worldly wisdom’ (P.180). From a movement perspective, what is required instead is a praxis oriented theory, which directly informs the choice of strategies in concrete struggles. ‘Theory, in this sense, is a tool that we use to figure out what is happening to us, why it is happening, and what to do about it, by going beyond the immediacy and situatedness of a particular experience’ (P.10).

When reading the book within the Marxism Reading Group in the School of Politics and IR at Nottingham University, we were not always convinced that the authors succeeded in living up to their own demands. Especially Chapter 2 on ‘needs’ and ‘capacities’ as fundamental ontological categories reads more like a highly complex, traditional academic analysis than a movement relevant, easily accessible text, with which concrete strategies can be thought through and developed. Nonetheless, the book serves well as a critical reminder to left-wing academics, not to submit to the standard requirements of the discipline, but to reach out to struggles and involve themselves in their concrete manifestations.

Movements from above in the making of history

A second major contribution of the volume is the emphasis that any given order is not a structural given, but an order made by dominant forces, the so-called movements from above. As a result, it becomes clear that oppressive systems too are human made and, therefore, can also be changed by human agency.  In the words of the authors, ‘the concept of social movements from above enables us … to grasp that “the way things are” has been consciously produced, not only in the here-and-now, but also across historical time and across different spatial scales’ (P.61).

WSF Dakar - Social Movement Assembly by TNI

Neo-liberalism since the early 1970s including also the most recent wave of austerity policies is understood as a project by movements from above, open for potential contestation by movements from below. History, in short, is understood as the outcome of a continuing struggle between movements from below and above. In a way, this is a tremendously empowering vision in that it makes clear that the current dominant order can be changed.

Stalemate in current struggles

While neo-liberalism has increasingly come under criticism as a result of the global financial crisis since 2007/2008, and more and more social movements from below have started to contest it, nonetheless current austerity policies continue the dominant neo-liberal line of restructuring. Cox and Nilsen’s third key contribution is to define the current situation as a situation of stalemate. ‘What of times of stalemate, when we are doing everything we can, they are clearly on the defensive, and yet we are not moving forward (P.163)?’ The concept allows us to comprehend that while there is increasing contestation, policies continue unaltered. This does not, however, imply that resistance would be without impact. In a way, the dominant forces, the movements from above have to resort more and more to authoritarian forms of policy implementation to maintain the current order. In other words, increasing violence in rolling out cuts to public services is a sign of weakness, not of strength by the dominant forces.   

Movements, strategy and state power

Photo by Denis Bocquet
The authors also make important observations in relation to concrete struggles. First, while they do not reject engagement with state power unlike autonomist Marxists, they council caution vis-à-vis the possibilities of obtaining change through the structures of electoral democracy. ‘The recognition of potential gains in engaging with the state should be joined to an equally clear perception of what is risked in a strategy that does not seek to move beyond the institutionalisation of political power in the state’ (PP.200-1). This point reminds one of Karl Marx’s assessment of the achievements by the Paris Commune in 1871. Having taken over state power, the revolutionaries immediately embarked upon transforming key institutions of the bourgeois state including education and the police (see Karl Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat).  

Cox and Nilsen also provide a useful assessment of the potential role of political parties and, by extension, trade unions. On the basis of the revolutionary history of the last 100 years, they strongly warn against the political party leading the movement in a top-down fashion. Instead, the primary emphasis has to rest on the movement and the activism of its members. ‘A party is worthy of Marxist interest only to the extent that it is successful in placing the movement first’ (P.204).

Movement struggles and the structural tendencies of capitalism

The struggle of movements from below and above is at the core of the book’s argument. Structure, in turn, is generally only perceived as the result of these struggles. Rethinking structure as collective agency, ‘this leads to an analysis of social structures and social formations as the sediment of movement struggles’ (P.57), the authors write. And yet, I am sceptical whether this reflects a proper assessment of structure and its implications for human agency. I am not convinced that structure can simply be viewed as the result of ‘a struggle over how human needs are to be satisfied and how human capacities are to be deployed’ (P.113). When capitalists engage in relentless competition with other capitalists over ever more market share and higher profits, then this is not the result of capitalists wanting to satisfy their human needs. Capitalists such as Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, have long amassed more than enough wealth to satisfy all their possible needs. If Microsoft engages in competition for yet further profits, then this is an activity which cannot be explained with satisfying needs.

In order to unravel the underlying dynamic, we need to look at the structural tendencies resulting from the way capitalist production is set up. Organised around the private ownership of the means of production and wage labour, not only workers but capitalists too have to reproduce themselves through the market. Capitalists are in constant competition with each other over market share and are, therefore, driven generally though the introduction of new technology to produce new and better products in order to outcompete their fellow capitalists and secure and increase their market share. In turn, their rivals have to do everything possible in order to match and overtake them. Otherwise, they are in danger first to lose market share and then to go bankrupt. As Marx noted, ‘under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him’ (Marx, 1867/1990: 381).

If capitalists, driven by competition for survival, engage in constant activities of further expansion, then this is the result of structural imperatives, not because of the fulfilment of personal needs. It is this structuralist dimension of the capitalist social relations of production, which is overlooked by Cox and Nilsen. Appreciating this structuralist dimension does not imply that agency would be side-lined. Rather, it is absolutely essential to comprehend these structural tendencies in order to assess properly the best strategies for resistance.

Overall, this is a hugely important book, a must-read for those interested in movement-relevant theorising with the goal of engaging in praxis leading towards a future beyond capitalism. 

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

23 December 2014

1 comment:

  1. A good summary of the positive contributions of the book I think. I personally found the text more problematic, here are some of the issues I had.
    Clearly the authors want to argue that structures are not eternal but are products of struggle, this is all to the good, but it means theyre overly suspicious of any structural analysis. This gives rise to a misleading picture of the contemporary "stalemate" which the authors seem to suggest has been brought about by the success of struggles from below such as the alter-globalisation movement. Yet Id argue the current crisis is a result of the internal structural contradictions of neoliberalism, the power of financial capital in the Anglo-Saxon world which led to de-regulation, collapse and ultimately the financing of the rescue through social austerity. This crisis came not from the strength of movements from below, but from their weakness.
    This then is the more fundamental problem, because of the authors apparent antipathy towards structural analysis (which they dismissively associate with privileged ivory tower leftist intellectuals, figures whom they do not however refrain from citing extensively throughout) they are left reliant on a largely voluntarist and inorganic theory of the politics of resistance. The three most common examples cited are the Namada resistance in India, the Zapatistas in Mexico and the alter-globalisation movement in Europe and USA. The title of the book "we make our own history" would appear to suggest organic self-organisation amongst the subaltern social groups in resistance to neoliberal capitalism, however in the case of Namada the authors claim the peasants were marked by a deference to authority meaning "resistance was unthinkable. This only changed when the villagers came into contact with a small group of urban, educated activists" (77-78). The example of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas equally relies on this conjuncture of a long oppressed and marginalised indigenous peasant community which became "politicised" through the arrival of similarly "urban educated activists" from the most prestigious university in Mexico City during the 1980s. The alter-globalisation movement is a final example where local protests only become fused as a coherent "movement of movements" with the intervention of western, white, educated youth at the major protests in western cities such as Genoa and Seattle. These cases are instructive as they reflect the authors theoretical perspective whereby "militant particularisms" developed organically amongst subaltern communities in place are transformed into "campaigns" through the intervention of outside educated activists. This however raises the question: what exactly do these university educated activists offer if it is not structural analysis? i.e. analysis that puts the particular struggle in a broader context. For all the antipathy towards the university intellectuals, it is precisely the students of these university intellectuals who are given the privileged position of politicising the mystified and particularist subaltern masses.
    Ultimately the authors are left not with an affirmation that "we make our own history" but rather a less rousing chorus "we make our own hisotyr, with a little help from our educated betters who understand our situation much better than we do". The heroes of this politics are not organic social agents amongst the popular classes, workers, peasants or community activists, but rather the non-organic professional activists capable of transforming militant particularisms into revolutionary campaigns. Such a voluntarist politics is reliant on the leadership of the young bourgeosie, it is not an organic social movement from below. As the authors celebrate the activist-scholar against the privileged university intellectual they might also be more reflexive in analysing their own social and epistemic privilege in relation to the particular struggles they are engaged with


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