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Late neoliberalism and its discontents

Social movements face 3 challenges: the symbolic challenge of constructing a new subject; the material challenge of mobilizing limited resources; and the strategic challenge of influencing a very closed political system. Español.

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Direct Democracy Now! organise protest in Syntagma Square, June 2011. Direct Democracy Now! organise protest in Syntagma Square, June 2011. Demotix/ Amira Karoud. All rights reserved.

Social movement studies have developed a useful toolkit of concepts to deal with collective action in normal times—meaning structured times. Mainly, they have addressed systems in so-called advanced democracies, with developed welfare states. Theorization has been oriented towards the explanation of the impact of structures on collective action. The main expectation is that protest requires opportunities and resources.

We know much less about some issues which are of fundamental importance in order to come to terms with late neoliberalism and its discontents. Namely:

  • -  Movements in times of crisis, when protest is triggered more by a threat than by opportunities;
  • -  Movements in exceptional times, that is in eventful times, when action fundamentally changes relations;
  • -  Movements as process, i.e. as producers of their own resources and a source in itself of empowerment.

Research in political economy has pointed at some general characteristics of neoliberalism: the free market has emerged as an ideology that drives policies oriented not so much towards a retreat of the state from the market but rather towards the reduction of investment in social services in the name of reducing inequality, and a protection instead of financial capitalism; privatization of public goods and bailing out of banks; the flexibilization of the labour market accompanied by ambitious regulatory activities oriented towards what are hoped to be increased occasions for speculative advantage.

These developments have clear consequences for the social bases of contemporary contentious politics. Both waves of protests of 2011 and 2013 in fact brought about a new concern with the social bases of contentious politics. In 2011, protestors were usually considered as mostly members of a new precarious class that had been dramatically hit by the austerity policies. Differently from those in 2011, the protests in 2013 were interpreted as “middle class” phenomena.

Data collected on the social background of those who protested over this period do not unequivocally clinch things either for the thesis of the mobilization of a new precariat, or that of a middle class movement. In all these protests, a broad range of social backgrounds present themselves: from students, to precarious workers, manual and non-manual dependent workers, petite bourgeoisie and professionals. Over-proportionally populated by the young and highly educated, the protests see however the participation of other age cohorts alongside them. There is a common-ification, as opposed to a commod-ification, of public spaces.

Multi-class, the various protest campaigns are not however inter-class. Rather, they tend to reflect some of the changes in the class structures that have characterized neoliberalism and its crisis: in particular, the proletarization of the middle classes and the precarization of workers.

As for the former, much research has pointed at the declining power of the middle classes, with trends of proletarization of a) independent petite bourgeoisie (e.g., transformations in the commercial structures bring about the elimination of independent shop keepers in favour of multinational corporations); b) the free professionals (through processes of privatization of services, the creation of oligopolistic firms, de-professionalization through Taylorization of tasks); c) the public employees (through reduction of status and salary, flexibilization of contracts, etc). As for the latter, precarization affects dependent workers in the industrial sectors (through closing down of traditional Fordist sectors, as well as flexibilization of working conditions) as well as in the tertiary sector, with the increase of informal labour, low paid jobs, precarious working conditions.

In summary, rather than a single class, the protests mobilized citizens with diverse social backgrounds. Movements in the years of the 2000s have been seen in fact as signs of a shared opposition to the commodification of public spaces, in an attempt, instead, towards a commonification, as constitutive of the commons.

In mobilizing this broad and varied social base, social movements in times of crises face specific challenges, which include the symbolic challenge of constructing a new subject; the material challenge of mobilizing limited resources; and the strategic challenge of influencing a very closed political system. Social movements express then, first and foremost, a claim to exist.

While not totally restricted by them, movement responses to the crises are in fact structured by the existing material resources (as present in movement networks) as well as symbolic resources (as expressed in movement culture). This implies a restriction of the options that are available but one that also triggers learning processes, in terms of the lessons arising from the past.

While certainly constrained by existing structures, a characteristic of the movements in times of crises is their capacity to create resources through the invention of new frames, organizational devices, forms of action. In this sense, in order to understand the condition for contentious action, attention has to shift to what has been termed as becoming: identities do not yet exist, rather they are in the process of being formed. Networks are reconstituted through the overcoming of old cleavages. In extraordinary times, as old identifications and expectations are defeated, a new spirit emerges in action. Social movements express then, first and foremost, a claim to exist.

The development of a new spirit has been noted in the occupied squares which have characterized the new repertoire of protests. The camps represented in fact spaces for the formation of a new subjectivity, based on a recomposition of former cleavages and the emergence of new identifications. These protests therefore are to be read as producing emerging entities, that go beyond their constitutive elements. The focus on becoming emerges through practices that stress the importance of encounters—the diversity of people in the various squares that is in fact so often celebrated.

In this sense, as indicated by the evolution in Greece and Spain, even when apparently in retreat, large waves of protest have been constituting character, suspending old norms and creating, in action, new ones. Democracy develops this way in the streets. 

This piece was originally published in Italian by Sbilanciamoci.  

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About the author

Donatella Della Porta is professor of political science and dean of the Institute for Humanities at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, where she also leads the Center on Social Movement Studies (Cosmos). In 2011, she was the recipient of the Mattei Dogan Prize for distinguished achievements in the field of political sociology. She is Honorary Doctor of the universities of Lausanne, Bucharest and Goteborg.

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