A brief article on Open Democracy from June 30th looking at some of the shared variables in anti-austerity movements across the OECD and possibilities for them becoming increasingly radical as conditions worsen.
Keith Kahn-Harris recently wrote about the genesis of a movement that is currently underway and represents no less than a “…spectre …haunting the early 21st century world”. Kahn-Harris observes that this movement possesses the ability to radically transform the world as we know it, and yet he notes, it does not yet recognize itself as a movement.
The ‘Movement’ and the Twilight of Neo-Liberalism:
I agree with many of the basic propostions put forward in Naming the Movement, most notably the fact that we are seeing increased discontent in the OECD (read ‘Western’) countries with a world where social relations and civic institutions are entirely subordinate to profit and economic returns,
“…the movement is born out of a sense of frustration (explicit or implicit by turn) with the tendency of the contemporary world to fragment communities, to make education into a purely instrumental exercise, to accord everything a measurable price. In a time of rapid change, of what Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity”, the bonds connecting us all are ever more frayed, the collectivities within which we can find a home ever more insubstantial.”
Tecno Brega: part of the movement?
I would add that the movement is not just born solely from an ethical concern with the current system but rather, after several decades of recognising neo-liberalism’s ability to commodify every day life and desecrate the environment, those in the developed world are now beginning to understand the genuine threat to their own standards of living posed by it as an economic system whose negative implications far outweigh any positive ones. Furthermore it is being increasingly recognised as undermining norms of national sovereignty and basic democratic accountability in countries as politically and economically diverse as Puerto Rico, Greece, Egypt and the UK. One particularly pertinent point is that the movement(s) we are seeing, particularly in Southern Europe and the UK, are in opposition to the logics of unaccountable transnational bodies such as credit ratings agencies, international finance institutions such as the IMF and global banking oligopolies such as Goldman Sachs.
What Kahn-Harris fails to identify is that the existential crisis of ‘affluenza’ and the absence of any notion of the ‘good society’ within the developed market economies is now conjoined with structural economic changes which mean that many of these same economies will witness a decline in standards of living over the course of the next decade. The ideological vacuity of late twentieth century capitalism, which never satisfied the ethical demands of equality and human flourishing, is now accompanied by the fact that people’s material economic conditions – whether they are blue or white collar workers – are worsening, be it with an increasingly precarious labour market or their (in)ability to afford education, healthcare and housing.
Subsequently moral disagreement with a rapacious economic system that was previously displaced onto ‘sympathising’ with the developing world is replaced by the understanding that this same system is presently attacking our own quality of life here in the ‘developed’ West. As a consequence we will increasingly see emergent subjectivities born in opposition to neo-liberalism that will not just be expressed by those in the developing nations, but increasingly among the growing numbers of the marginalised in the developed world. Given the dynamics that affect all are those of a globalising economy, it is natural that resistance to such dynamics – increasingly conscious of the broader global context in which national policy is constrained – will assume both national and transnational critiques and identities. Hence such resistance inevitably becomes a movement of movements.
The Practical and Productive norms of the ‘Movement’ have been Informed by the Developing Periphery:
One major contention I do have with Kahn-Harris’ piece is the assumption within this question:
“How far is the movement confined to a particular section of the western middle classes? How can it spread to non-western contexts and to what used to be called the working class?”
Simply put the ‘movement’ is primarily informed by practices that originate from the global periphery, the developing world and the poorest communities from within the developed West. Kahn-Harris speaks about Brian Eno and Cory Doctorow as examples of “…artists, musicians and writers that strive to find new modes of production and consumption”. The truth is that the great examples of the ‘free culture movement’ (as in a culture that is not subject to rigid notions of intellectual property rights and is easily disseminable) originate from poorer communities in both the developed and developing world rather than the Western middle-classes.
Examples include the genesis of Hip Hop in the United States in the 1970’s, the ‘free party’ scene in the UK in the early 1990’s and more recently the rise of ‘Tecno Brega’ a dance music genre originating in the poor North West of Brasil. All three genres, 70’s Hip Hop, 90’s rave and contemporary Tecno Brega embody the ‘remix’ rationale that is opposed to IP rights and enforced scarcity. Along with the music of GirlTalk and Dangermouse’s seminal ‘remix’ Grey Album of 2004, it is Tecno Brega and the music from the economic periphery whose production values reside at the very core of the new culture.
Elsewhere the tactics of direct action increasingly witnessed in OECD countries with the rise of Climate Camp, UKUncut (this being the most media friendly of many such groups) and Southern Europe’s Indignados have been favoured by the alter-globalisation movement for the best part of a decade. Indeed the tactics now being increasingly favoured in wealthy European countries have proved most fertile in Latin America and the transnational Via Campesina movement during the last several decades. It is these movements, be it the Landless Workers Movement of Brasil or the Piqueteros of Argentina from a decade ago, who favoured direct action, networked communication and non-hierarchical organisation long before anti-austerity protesters in the OECD. Indeed the practical vocabulary of networked and leaderless political movements has been percolating in the developing world since the mid-1990’s and the rise of the Zapatistas in Mexico – it is these movements which inform many of the norms, tactics and subjectivities that mark the new movement(s) that we are seeing in the developed world. Given that these countries endured structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) a decade or more before developed countries did, it is of little surprise that their historical experiences of resistance will come to inform that of similar and more contemporary anti-austerity movements in the developed world.
The Variables that Make the Movement:
To my mind the movement is being catalysed by a number of identifiable variables.
Firstly, the failure of neo-liberalism. Economic conditions in most OECD economies are worsening and are set to continue that way for the best part of a decade. The inertia and decline in community and social meaning in our lives is now accompanied by deteriorating living standards and wages as well as the crumbling of the old bastions of the welfare state, with an end to the formerly public institutional actors in education, housing and healthcare.
Secondly, there is a failure of democratic accountability in many ‘developed’ countries as the ‘necessity’ of banking bail-outs and fiscal austerity demanded by banks, ratings agencies and the IMF outweighs any democratic demands from the people. The necessity of such measures in order to adhere to the rules of ‘the game’ (the game being to remain ‘competitive’ in a globalised economy) mean that as all the major political parties concur on what must be done, electorates feel increasingly distant from party politics and the ‘legitimate’ political process – hence the increased acceptance of adopting direct action tactics that look beyond the political parties and the ballot box as the only route to change.
Thirdly, new technologies such as the internet and SMS messaging allow historically unprecedented levels of communication and coordination between groups of all sizes at virtually zero-cost. E-mail lists, mobile phone lists, blogs, Twitter accounts, Skype and Facebook pages means that university occupations, trade union branches and local anti-cuts groups have the kinds of organisational and communicative resources that were unthinkable a decade ago. This means that previously disparate groups can ‘find each other’ with greater ease than previously imaginable. Within this context longer term affinities will emerge among large numbers of people who might otherwise never have known of one another, let alone meet and engage in collective action. As well as such large groups organising, without organisations but around shared identities there will also be a dramatic rise both in the number and effectiveness of QARNs that mobilize around specific policy issues such as the student movement last Winter.
As well as the ability to effectively co-ordinate and organise without organisations, these technologies mean that the era of a ‘one-to-many’ mass media is replaced by a ‘many-to-many mass media’ which undermines the ability of the mainstream media to exercise a monopoly on discourse formation and what constitutes the ‘truth’. It is fair to say that during the student movement of last winter the political argument against the fees was made more effectively by students and groups using ‘bottom up’ media than by the government using traditional ‘top down’ mainstream media.
It is also this new model of political economy that informs what Guy Aitchison and myself have referred to as ‘Open Source Activism’ that uses many of the same tools of mass collaboration to harness generalised and networked political dissent, be it the British student movement, the Occupation of Wisconsin’s Capitol building, UKUncut, the Indignados Movement or the generalising of the June 30 strike.
Fourthly, the communicative ecology of the internet also permits new models of political economy built on ‘mass collaboration’ and the rejection of traditional notions of intellectual property rights. It is this spirit that informs projects as disparate as Wikipedia, the music of Tecno Brega, the Works of Cory Doctorow, aaaaarg.org, the music of GirlTalk, the Pirate Bay and Indymedia – and that also seems at the heart of a growing hacktivist movement that sees the ‘liberating of knowledge’ from traditional understandings of proprietary ownership as central to its mission.
Fifthly, while it is easy to overstate the role of the new ‘sociological type’ of the highly educated and underemployed graduate it is clear that with increased numbers of university graduates entering OECD job markets that have little to no job creation over the next several years ramifications for social movements and political contention in those countries seems inevitable. The Juventud Sin Futuro movement in Spain offers us perhaps the first glimpse of this.
While unemployment is frequently referred to as the statistic to watch, underemployment is more insiduous in the precarious labour markets of many post-Fordist economies in the developed world. When one realises that there are currently six million people in the UK who are unemployed or underemployed, then one sees the real scale of the problem. Clearly it is equally problematic for an economics graduate or an engineer to be working in a minimum wage job for several years as it is them being unemployed (most graduates in their twenties will know a dozen people in a situation like this, particularly if they live in a major city – be it Rome, Athens, London or Los Angeles).
In the last two years I have worked in low paid jobs with laid off engineers, a former currency trader, phd/ msc graduates and dozens of highly educated graduates from other European member states. Indeed one of my best friends, a masters graduate from the LSE with a first-class degree from UCL has spent several years working in bars and driving white vans for a living.
Clearly it is much easier for someone to get involved in political activism when they are working a 25 hour week and are in a vocation which is not what they have trained for. Furthermore the problem of underemployed university graduates seems to be a persistent theme in Spain, Greece, Britain, the US and elsewhere and a phenomenon that genuinely ties the diverging crises of many of the major industrial economies together. Such individuals frequently work alongside first generation immigrants and the ‘working poor’ in the most precarious jobs such as services and seasonal work and should not be seen as ‘fighting for the working class’ but should rather be regarded as part of a reconstituted ‘fighting working class’. These experiences can also lead to utterly authentic feelings of solidarity with some of the most exploited people in society.
In conclusion it may well be these individuals who contribute a great deal to both resistance and prefigurative counter-projects over the coming years. Furthermore it is likely that such projects will be greatly facilitated by the tools identified in point three and that the norms of social and economic creativity may be informed by the spirit of remix and the free culture movements as identified in point four. All of which will unfold within the context of economic and geopolitical flux that is unprecedented for at least several generations.
The Movement Needs No Name:
The movement(s) needs no name because it is, for the moment at least, only just beginning to recognise itself in opposition to a rampant neo-liberalism that corrodes identity and community (as Kahn Harris notes citing Bauman) as well as democratic accountability, legislative sovereignty and previously cherished public institutions in healthcare and public education among others.
Neo-liberalism as a project has been globally ascendant since the disadoption of the gold standard by the US in 1971. It has informed economic orthodoxy here in the UK since the IMF bailout of 1975, this being subsequently re-inforced with the electoral victories of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and now David Cameron. Given that this same ideology was only found wanting as recently as 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the nationalisation of the US mortgage market and the part-nationalisation of two of Europe’s largest banks (as well as full nationalisation of Northern Rock) by the British state one should not expect a developed critique and fully developed alternative within such a short time frame. From Greece to Britain, Iceland and the US, people are increasingly aware of the flaws of the present financial system and the detrimental impact it has on public institutions and individuals’ lives, and that it leads to the increasingly undemocratic nature of their political systems.
People know something is wrong and that the present situation is untenable. In truth the only impractical utopians are those in the media, government and finance that believe more neo-liberalism is the required antidote to this crisis. The movement(s) recognise this more than any dogmatic policy maker or political journalist, who with increasing frequency mistake the aether of the corridors of power for the realities of the street, the workplace and the home.
For now it seems that the movements are critiquing in content and proposing in form. That is to say they are making increasingly strong arguments against global neo-liberalism when tackling transnational tax avoidance, insulated policy elites and the unregulated banking sector. At the same time, what is less frequently realised, is that there is a propositional politics within the movement that exists in its practices rather than any written manifesto. These practices are participatory, non-hierarchical, localist, frequently critical of property rights and based on a culture of solidarity and reciprocity. Furthermore, from UKUncut and the student occupations to Tahrir square and acampa da sol, they seem to orient themselves around the re-appropriation of space, utilizing the rhetoric of public good over private gain.
To name the movement now and isolate what it stands for would only be to limit our collective imaginations. People are only just beginning to realise that neo-liberalism is not only a frequently counter-productive economic orthodoxy but that it also undermines popular sovereignty and renders representative governments increasingly undemocratic in terms of offering the electorate genuine choice. In order to really change the world we live in, large numbers of people will have to come to believe that another world, a better world, is possible. For such optimism and the anti-authoritarian practices of these movements to then translate into concrete objectives and demands, there first needs to be the broad realisation among the public that our economic system is irredeemably broken and that within global neo-liberalism our political systems are anything but democratic. This has not yet happened. However, the Real Democracia Ya! movement in Spain, last year’s British student movement and current events in Greece would suggest that such a realisation and loss of faith in the political and economic systems as they stand is much nearer than any political elite in the ‘developed’ world would care to admit.
We live in interesting times and before we give such times a name, we need to truly understand what it is they are a reaction against. Most importantly, large numbers of people are beginning to say another world is possible – to label that as anything at this moment would be to only hinder just how ambitious that possible world might become.