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.
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. 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 to 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’. 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’. 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’.
When reading the book within the Marxism Reading Group in the School of Politics and IR at the University of Nottingham, 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’.
Neoliberalism 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 neoliberalism 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 neoliberal 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?’ 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
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’. 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’.
Movement struggle 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’, 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’. 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 out-compete 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.
This post was originally posted on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring (23 December 2014) and appears here as one of the texts originally read in the Marxism Reading Group.
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Author: Andreas Bieler
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy in the School of Politics and International Relations and Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (together with Adam David Morton) (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatization in Europe (Zed Books/Bloomsbury, 2021).