Are we ready for the twilight of neoliberalism?

Not since the Great Depression have so many people in the global North called into question capitalism, yet among most of the advanced capitalist countries there is little organized pushback. Worse, parties of the Right appear to be gaining ground as voters who in the past backed the traditional parties of the center-left increasingly stay home, disgusted at their “me, too” approach to economics.

A decaying order increasingly reliant on repression that delivers immiseration to ever more people ought to be under more pressure. It can’t be said there are no serious challenges — social movements such as Spain’s Indignados and political coalitions contending for power such as Greece’s Syriza, for example — and the dramatic instant popularity of the Occupy movement demonstrated widespread discontent.

Still, the limitations of Occupy led to its demise and nothing yet has arisen in its place. Is there a weakness in our movements that is preventing them from organizing that discontent and channeling it into productive forces capable of challenging prevailing social orders?

We Make Our Own History coverAny answer to the puzzle of why Left movements have gained so little traction comprises multiple parts. Certainly the enormous institutional advantages that industrialists and financiers possess through their ability to exert decisive influence over governments, their domination of the mass media, the disposal of police and military forces at their service, and ability to infuse their preferred ideologies through a web of institutions can’t be discounted. Nonetheless, that does not relieve ourselves of the necessity to think about how we attempt to organize.

Activist knowledge has been “frozen” in specific forms, and today’s movements must be willing to break with past patterns and to build different styles of organization, argue Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen in their study of social movements, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism.* In writing this book, the authors, both of whom have long histories in activist work, set out to “reclaim” activist knowledge for today’s movements and problems.

The authors quite reasonably argue that the failure of neoliberalism is “evident” and that we are now living in the “twilight” of the neoliberal era. That neoliberalism is reaching its end does not necessarily mean that capitalism is reaching its end; merely capitalism’s latest phase. “There is no alternative” retains a powerful punch even as conditions continue to deteriorate around the world. Moreover, activists are at a disadvantage when operating within rules designed to maintain the status quo.

Theory does not derive from an armchair

Theory, Professors Cox and Nilsen write, derives from the activist work of making sense of, and changing, social experience. Theory helps grasp ideas in opposition to dominant discourses, helping us go beyond our immediate situation or experience. A “unity of theory and action, and not simply practice,” is a necessity. But theory is not a concept imposed from high above nor the province of a handful of philosophers. They write:

“The producers of theory are — potentially — everyone who reflects on their experiences so as to develop new and improved ways of handling problematic aspects of that experience. Theory, in this perspective, is knowledge that is consciously developed out of experience, and has been worked through using experience as a touchstone, that has become explicit and articulate, and which as been brought to a level where it can be generalised.” [page 8]

The everyday experience of creating new forms of organization during struggles itself provide bases for a better world.

“At their best and within wider movements for social change, the council, the assembly, the occupied factory, the social centre, the self-organised neighbourhood, or the liberated zone can simultaneously prefigure a different way of living together, represent an effective means of organising here and now, and embody a critique of key social relationships and institutions.” [page 11]

Building from abstract concepts in its early pages, We Make Our Own History steadily builds concrete scaffolding. A key concept of this scaffolding, introduced to emphasize the understanding that the current organization of the world is a product of human construction that can be disassembled and replaced through human agency, is that of “movements from above.” We are used to seeing grassroots activity as movements — movements from “below.” We Make Our Own History defines “movements from above” as the collective agency of dominant groups to reproduce or extend their power and hegemonic positions.

Movements from above draw upon a multitude of positions to cement their hegemony, among them their directing role in enterprises, superior access to state power, ability to extract “consent” from significant sections of the subaltern and ability to apply repression to those who refuse to consent. Movements from above are “forever moving.” the authors write, and are able to use a variety of tactics in their responses to movements from below: military force, police force, the law, and school and workplace sanctions. When necessary, concessions will be made, but only to some groups and in forms that reinforce clientalism and patriarchal relations while blocking self-activity and organization.

Seeing the efforts of elites as “movements from above” enables an understanding of our ability to change conditions, through the combined efforts of movements from below.

The building blocks of a movement

Movements from below must become strong enough to counter the hegemony of capitalist elites with a “counter-hegemony.” Professors Cox and Nilsen propose three “levels” of movements from below in distinguishing their ability to force structural change. Local, defensive struggles (the basic building block) can coalesce into much more effective offensives when they connect with other movements from below on the basis of common grounds to forge extra-regional or international coalitions that critique dominant ideas and projects.

Such coalitions, however, tend to remain field-specific and don’t necessarily relate to the social totality that shapes the issue being struggled against. If activists begin to examine larger structural issues, the authors write, they may go beyond field-specific campaigns to become a “social movement project” that targets the social totality. Thus,

“[S]uch a social movement project stands out from other forms of collective agency from below by virtue of its capacity to identify its own actors socially; name its central opponent; and recognizing that the social totality is the product and object of such struggles. In other words, there is a return ‘up’ the sequence from opposing everyday routines to opposing the structures that generate them, and finally to directly confronting the movements from above which have constructed the whole.” [page 83]

From this comes the question of: What is the nature of what we are fighting? To assist in answering that question, the authors divide the history of capitalism into three eras:

  • “Disembedded” market-centered liberal capitalism that lasted into the early 20th century. This era was marked by the violent incorporation of the colonized world into the world-system of capitalism, and concessions made to emergent middle classes split them from the subaltern, linking them to the aristocracy and bourgeoisie.
  • “Re-embedded” state-centered organized capitalism from the end of World War II to the 1970s. This period arose out of the breakdown of the previous era and in response to mass uprisings carrying the potential to sweep away capitalism. Some measure of development was allowed for the global South through import-substitution industrialism; workers of the global North received increasing wages and concessions in exchange for de-politicizing their demands.
  • “Disembedded” neoliberal capitalism since the 1980s, a project to “disembed” capital from institutional regulations. The turn to neoliberalism is grounded in changed conditions, in particular the profit squeeze that set in during the 1970s, and is organized globally through alliances with capitalists in all regions of the world and links among trans-national capital. Capitalists’ attempt to restore previous profit levels centers on breaking the power of labor and a strategy of “accumulation through dispossession” — the conversion of common property into private capital.

The victory of neoliberalism is “pyrrhic,” the authors write, because the accumulation strategies that restored power for capitalists are the root of the present crisis. Thus, we are in the twilight of neoliberalism. That elites can offer nothing new is a sign of their brittleness, but the simultaneous weakness of movements from below has led to an unusually long period of stalemate.

Learning from one another, not blindly following

How then will this logjam be broken? As no movement, organization or leader has a monopoly of ideas, Professors Cox and Nilsen envision a “movement of movements”: The coming together of independent movements without the intention of submitting to the leadership of any single party or of privileging narrow definitions of working class interests. This necessitates not only learning from one another to increase the body of knowledge that can be drawn upon but also learning from the past. It also stresses the full incorporation of struggles against racism, sexism and all other forms of oppression.

Winning, the authors write, means defeating the state, breaking up at least some power relations and instituting new ones, but doing so through the masses, not a vanguard. Success, then, is the collective achievement of people going beyond what they previously believed possible.

“These situations share a potential for human self-development to flourish beyond the normal limits set by exploitation, oppression, ignorance and isolation, creating institutions driven by human need rather than by profit and power. … These ‘everyday utopias’ do not need to be installed from above by decree; what they do need is a breaking of power relations within communities, workplaces, state institutions and globally, which stand in their way.” [pages 186-7]

Building the “counter-hegemony” that can check and then supplant the hegemony of capitalists is far from an easy task. Those who benefit from the current world order spare no exertion in attempting to convince us that no other world is possible. Realizing that such assertions are nothing more than self-serving ideology helps to give ourselves the necessary consciousness to liberate ourselves:

“[I]f we do not see not see neoliberalism as a complex, contested, fragile and ultimately impermanent achievement of elite agency we are taking the intentions of its makers as given fact — and in essence conceding permanent defeat.” [page 142]

Professors Cox and Nilsen set themselves the audacious goal of reclaiming activist knowledge through filling a void in studies of social movements. They have succeed: We Make Our Own History is recommended reading for activists serious about bringing into being a better world.

* Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism. [Pluto Press, London, 2014]

21 comments on “Are we ready for the twilight of neoliberalism?

  1. Deke Solomon says:

    You are never going to get anywhere with ideas such as ‘counter-hegemony’ and other, similar, poli-sci textbook terminology. The proles understand violence. They do not understand and are not interested in anything that comes out of a poli-sci textbook or from a professor of poli-sci.

    I say again: Proles understand violence. Novelist Gustav Hasford made a good case (The Phantom Blooper) for violence being ‘the universal language’. That’s why TV networks schedule as many sports events as possible instead of chess tournaments or game shows such as ‘The $64,000 Question’ and ‘The College Bowl’. Think Sen. Adlai Stevenson: the egghead is dead.

    I know how it feels. I’m an egghead myself, but I have the advantage of having survived 40+ years in the blue-collar trenches. I still speak the language but I lost all my friends when I went to college and then to graduate school. Nobody in the blue-collar set trusts me any more. The white-collar crowd turn up their noses when I”m around because I was a sergeant of Marines and formerly drove a truck.

    The gist of both prejudices is: Nobody who drove a truck could possibly know anything worth knowing. Nobody can trust an educated person; they’re the ones who get all the gravy while the rest of us get fucked.

    Change WILL come. Change always comes. Change is a natural fact of life. But the kind of change you and I want to see comes only from the barrels of guns. Reason being that fascists who once get hold of power will never let go of power voluntarily, and they will use deadly force to keep it. That, also, is a natural fact of life..

    Solomon sed.

    • Deke, you’ve given us a serious challenge. I would like to begin an answer by suggesting something of the opposite: It is the capitalist ruling class that understands only violence. Revolutions are violent not because those attempting a revolution are violent, but because those holding power are all too willing to use violence to keep themselves in power. From below, nobody starts out by fomenting violence; a violent reaction happens only when all other avenues are exhausted and it is glaringly obvious that no change will happen otherwise.

      There was such a thing as a “velvet revolution” (or counter-revolution, depending on how we wish to situate 1989) in Czechoslovakia because the rulers, the Communist Party, decided their time was up, and handed power to Civic Forum and Public Against Violence. The velvetness was not because the opposition was peaceful, although they were.

      In contrast, no capitalist ruling class has ever given up power peacefully, and it is not realistic to expect that they would. They won’t, as you plainly said. So, yes, as much as we would prefer otherwise, violence will be a part of the process. The larger and more effective our movement is, the quicker that a period of violence necessary for self-defense will be passed through.

      But if we aren’t organized, if we don’t have a clear idea of what we are doing, why we are doing it, what it is to be overturned, and who are allies are, we lose. We lose and we suffer horrific repression. Theory or practice by themselves are useless. Only through a unity of theory and practice can we have a chance to effect change. What we need to do is not turn up our nose at concepts like “counter-hegemony” but to translate it to more everyday language. From your critique I can infer that I have not done that job with my review.

      We will need all the working class intellectuals we can find to win a better world. Those white- and blue-collar folks who don’t want to talk to you are doing themselves a big disservice.

      • Deke Solomon says:

        Systemic Disorder — you preach to the choir right up to the penultimate paragraph. You seem to believe it is possible to organize a resistance in Uncle Sam’s America. In fact, however, it is not. That’s because we’re all under surveillance, 24/365. Every word we type on this page, for example, already resides in an NSA computer somewhere. Were we talking on cell phones, land lines or radios my argument would still hold. There won’t be any organization because no organization is possible. What’s coming is abject anarchy vs. Uncle Sam. The anarchists can win if they are brave, vastly numerous, entirely determined. But they will act as small groups or as mad-dog individuals. To attempt organization is a form of mass suicide.

      • Deke Solomon says:

        One more thing: Stop calling them ‘the capitalist ruling class.’ Start calling them fascists, because that is what they are. People like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison could justly be referred to as a ‘capitalist ruling class.’ People like Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are not cut from ‘ruling class’ cloth.

        • On all other points, we have legitimate disagreements that will continue to be debated (although I will say that to say resistance is not possible is to give up and that none of us can afford to do). Your last point on, however, I have to strongly oppose. We are not living under fascism, and it is a highly dangerous fallacy to say that we are.

          A little history here: In the early 1930s, the German Communist Party, thanks to Stalin’s idiotic “social fascist” line, ran around screaming that the Weimar Republic was already “objectively fascist” and that the Social Democrats were simply a “wing” of fascism. Therefore, the communists concentrated their fire on the Social Democrats and refused to fight the Nazis. When the Nazis — that is, the actual fascists — took power in 1933, the communists very quickly learned the difference between a bourgeois sham democracy (or “formal democracy”) and fascism.

          Those who escaped, did; those who didn’t wound up in Hitler’s concentration camps. Once the communists were out of the way, Hitler made short work of union leaders, unions themselves and the Social Democrats. Once all political opposition was out the way, the Nazis could then turn their attention to the Jews, and ultimately the Holocaust.

          Then there are the Nazi labor laws, which a Nazi official once admitted were little different from a penal code. Among other things, every worker had a “work passport” in which employers wrote reports on them and without which employment was impossible. Later it was illegal to change jobs. Wages were drastically cut and labor rights were non-existent. This was the only way the German capitalists could maintain their profitability; that’s why most of them supported Hitler.

          The potential of fascism always exists under capitalism, because fascism is capitalism with the veneer of democracy stripped away. But although that potential always exists, it does not mean that we are living under it. We aren’t, as rotten as our current state of capitalism is. If we cavalierly throw around the word “fascist” and apply it to anything we don’t like, we lose understanding of what it really is, and that is dangerous because then we are unable to oppose it when it begins to become more than a latent possibility.

          Sorry if I am being overly sharp in this response, but this is one I feel very strongly about. We forget history at our own peril.

          • Deke Solomon says:

            You wrote — “On all other points, we have legitimate disagreements that will continue to be debated (although I will say that to say resistance is not possible is to give up and that none of us can afford to do). Your last point on, however, I have to strongly oppose. We are not living under fascism, and it is a highly dangerous fallacy to say that we are.”

            I never said resistance was impossible. I said it was impossible (maybe suicidal would have been a better word) to organize a resistance. My implication was that surveillance technology has made organization impossible. I said that any resistance will have to operate in very small groups or as mad-dog individuals.

            My contention is that surveillance technology means that what’s coming down the pipe will more closely resemble the activity of Michael Collins’s IRA than that of George Washington’s Continental Army. Anybody runs up against Uncle Sam today is gonna have to deal — not just with up-to-the-minute surveillance and weapons technology — but with SWAT teams, U.S. Special Forces, an absolutely unprecedented HORDE of secret police.

            Organize if you want to, but it ain’t me, Babe.

            I have no problem with what you think. I got my own think to think on.

            Solomon sed.

  2. Jerry says:

    From the current state of the world I do not agree that neoliberalism is in its twilight. I do not see the corporate elite giving up that easily. In many sectors including the economy, higher ed, etc. the ideals of neoliberalism are very much in force. I agree with the authors that the only way this changes is many coordinated social movements. As shown in Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self when the radicals of the 60’s and 70’s tried to fight the state, see Kent State, the state/establishment brought the hammer down on the protesters. This will need to be countered by a massive social movement. As noted in an article on inequality by David Simon the probable path will require bricks and pitchforks. Until then neoliberalism is very much alive and well. Raewyn Connell has written about the globalization of neoliberalism as well.

    • That neoliberalism is in its “twilight” does not mean it is going to go away tomorrow. Those ideas, as you state, are indeed very much in force. They will remain in force until an effective counter-movement forces change. But if we don’t act, if we let capitalist elites continue to rule unhindered, what replaces neoliberalism may well be worse.

      The author’s point with their concept of twilight is that it is too unstable, creates too many problems, to endure. I would agree with that. But that doesn’t automatically mean something better will replace it. I would go so far as to say that we have entered the beginning of the end of capitalism itself, not simply its neoliberal manifestation. But that unraveling could take decades to take place, unless global mass movements speed up the process — and intervene in a way to institute something better and more sustainable.

      • Jerry says:

        If I read between the lines of you’re comment,” we have entered the beginning of the end of capitalism”, you are indicating that capitalism is slowly ending but what could/ or is replacing it may be worse than the neoliberal version? That is a scary thought. By the way I enjoy the blog a lot. Keep it up!

  3. Okay, here goes! I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I never thought of myself as mentally challenged, but I gotta admit, I needed to heave the old thesaurus out of the corner, blow the dust off of it and get to looking up several words and their meanings. Now after having done that, my comment is still going to sound stupid, but I’ll just have to chance it. Won’t be the first time, I’m sure.

    Things are changing all the time. We may not be as aware of change because we don’t see it, yet. We’ve kind of gone over this a bit before, about how what is going down now, all across the globe, is unsustainable. There are many ‘movements’ going on as I type this and they all may have different agendas and they may even share agendas and I think that what is being suggested here is that people should take a step back, look at the big picture and go from there, converge movements into a singular movement that could actually challenge the status quo as opposed to ‘splinter movements’ with their non-gains. And that no movement can bring about change through violence even if it is to liberate us from those who would oppress us.

    What people need to understand is the fact that everything that has happened and is happening and will happen must be brought about by violence, just as it always has regardless of whether we like to believe otherwise. A movement is a group of people with a likeminded purpose that basically targets its antagonists, opposing forces of the ‘movement’. For example, take the Civil Rights Movement; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and all the others who peacefully marched and protested and insisted upon a ‘peaceful’ movement ‘targeted’ and opposed the rule of law as established by the U.S. government and they were met with violence. That is how it has always been even from the birth of America. The movement to found this nation was a movement based on violence, a movement to establish ‘The New World’ and so what did that entail? Killing off many of the original inhabitants, the Indian tribes, stealing their land and indoctrinating them into the ‘New World Order’. Violence was met with violence and those with superior weapons, achieved their goal, taking what was once others and doing with it what they would. Now, of course this goes back to what the authors of this book are referring to. Who has the superior tools or weapons and the ability to get the most out of what it has to work with? With those against neoliberal capitalism having much less to work with than those they are opposing.

    We also know that there was another movement to ‘build’ this new nation and thus slaves were captured through violence and violently made to build this ‘New World Order’. What has changed? Nothing. Violence is inherent in each and every one of us and when we want to effect change for whatever reason, a ‘movement’ is born and violence WILL most definitely play a role in that movement. Look at the history of the Roman Empire and the brutality and violence that WAS Rome. Look at the French Revolution. It took violence and brutality to overtake violence and brutality and that is still at play today. The U.S. uses violence and brutality against other countries on a daily basis that is indeed all part of the constant ‘movement’ to maintain the status quo of this ‘New World Order’ to conquer, control and subjugate. People are going to get fed up with that and all that comes with it. People will rise up against it. We will think that what comes out of the violence of the movement for change should be peace, but we’ve never known peace and we never shall. But regardless, no movement will ever be peaceful, it never has no matter how you define, a movement, et al, the labor movement, the abortion rights movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, the Occupy Movement, the movement against cruelty to animals and so forth and so on. Violence has always played a part in every ‘movement’ because what was obtained violently can only be wrenched back, violently and so it shall continue.

    But still, a great post Systemic Disorder!

    • Be most assured, Shelby, that what you are saying is anything but stupid! I think I shall reiterate what I wrote in response to Deke’s comment above, that I did not do a good job of, for lack of a better word, translation.

      I really enjoyed this book, and having been wrapped up in it but then distracted by other projects when writing the review over a couple of days, I took some terminology for granted. If somebody as astute as you has to blow dust over the thesaurus, then I have not made myself clear enough.

      As to your points on violence, it has to be said that there is nothing more red, white and blue American than violence. There is a reason that the U.S. spends about as much as the rest of the world combined on the military. As recent events have shown, regardless of who is in the White House, it takes a lot of force to maintain an empire that spawns such drastic inequality.

      • Thanks for being so sweet Systemic Disorder! Although, I consider myself to be ‘well read’, I’m not in your category. I guess I should put down my guilty pleasure; mystery/suspense books. Words like hegemony and neoliberalism and paradigm and “pyrrhic,”(I thought that meant, ‘of fire’) are not words that I throw out every day. Not to mention, you must know that those of us in America, have been ‘dumbed down’ and we need things to be kept really, really simple or we just won’t get it. That is why I just cuss a lot ’cause Americans understand that and no explanation needed.

        So, from henceforth, I shall pick myself up out of the gutter and commence to get acquainted with some new words and stop cussing all over the place. But I do want to emphasize that I love your enthusiasm and your obvious education and knowledge as you have a very fine blog here. I always learn quite a lot (even if I do have to occasionally blow dust off my thesaurus in order to follow what is being said).

        Please keep them coming and I will continue to educate myself by reading what you write. And I would dearly love it if there could be some way for the world’s people to throw off the yoke of capitalism’s tyranny and oppression because we have limited resources and those resources are being exhausted at an alarming rate by the few who pull the strings and we are fast running out of time if there is something to be done, we’d best get to doing it. The Gates and the Buffets, the Walton’s, the Rothschild’s and the Rockefellers and their like cannot possibly need all the wealth that they have accumulated while billions of people are homeless refugees starving to death and still others are working for poverty wages to continue to prop up a system that is failing the majority of us, globally and what we hear from the ‘elites’ is “Let them eat cake!” This cannot and must not continue.

        Again, I thank you!

        • I would dearly love it if there could be some way for the world’s people to throw off the yoke of capitalism’s tyranny and oppression …” There is. You, me and everybody else will have to find that way. If I have to cuss to make the revolution happen, I will gladly do so.

          And don’t give up mystery/suspense books – if we didn’t have an escape once in a while we’d go mad. A day hiking in the woods or through a desert are favorite escapes of mine, when there is nothing to worry about other than getting back before the Sun sets.

  4. Alcuin says:

    “The authors quite reasonably argue that the failure of neoliberalism is ‘evident’ and that we are now living in the ‘twilight’ of the neoliberal era. That neoliberalism is reaching its end does not necessarily mean that capitalism is reaching its end; merely capitalism’s latest phase.”

    I find it very interesting how the word neoliberalism is tossed about without much thought about what it is. Neo liberalism. New liberalism, as opposed to old liberalism. As you rightly pointed out in your previous post, liberalism started just about the same time that capitalism did – funny coincidence, eh? Marx wrote in opposition to liberalism and now here we are, with another set of authors preaching that the end of neoliberalism is nigh. Could be, but I doubt it very much. Perhaps the end of its most visible faults is near, for awhile, but capitalism isn’t dead. Far from it. You write that neoliberalism is “merely capitalism’s latest phase.” I’d say that a leopard can’t change its spots.

    The argument about “embedded” capitalism versus “disembedded capitalism” is right out of Polanyi, though he didn’t believe that there was any such thing as “embedded capitalism”. Instead, he saw, in the long course of human history, that until the invention of capitalism, markets were embedded in society and thus were under the control of society. With the invention of capitalism markets slipped their social constraints and began wreaking destruction. Every attempt to bring the enormously destructive and creative power of capitalism under social control since it was invented has eventually faded away (the New Deal) or has been violently suppressed (too many examples to list).

    Again, I’d highly recommend reading Chet Bowers’ essay on the misuse of our political language and Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. Marx did a superb job of detailing how capitalism works, but not such a great job of placing it into the context of human history. For an interesting comparison of Marx and Polanyi, read this interesting article, What Can Marxists Learn from Polanyi?.

    • I personally would use different terminology, but the authors’ concept of three eras of capitalism is sound. Their second period of “embedded capitalism” is Keynesianism by another name. The Keynesian period of capitalism did indeed break down in the 1970s, just as the earlier “laissez-faire” system broke down. The current neoliberal era will not last forever, either.

      What would be ideal would be for capitalism to be brought to an end, not simply its latest manifestation. But that will require a global mass movement. On the other hand, capitalism itself will break down because, among other reasons, you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. Nothing of human creation is permanent. We could wind up with something worse than neoliberalism, even a form of fascism, if we do nothing and continue to roll in the dust at the feet of industrialists and financiers. Because one system begins to break down does not automatically mean something better will replace it.

      I would disagree that neoliberalism is being “tossed about without much thought.” As I’ve noted before, and as discussed in the previous post’s comments, the world “neoliberalism” is a standard term around the world, other than in North America, and is understood as a harsh régime of “market discipline” applied through the state.

      Liberalism in the 19th century was an ideology of an emergent bourgeoisie, and of plantation owners who began to raise cash crops for export. These groups wanted barriers to trade torn down and social flexibility so that they would have a mobile workforce at their disposal. They formed a distinct political opposition to the conservatism of traditional plantation owners who had controlled their societies through their control of the land and sought to maintain feudal social structure and organization.

      Again, that definition of “liberal” is what continues to be used outside of North America, and thus is the root for the modern term “neoliberal.”

  5. Alcuin says:

    “Liberalism in the 19th century was an ideology of an emergent bourgeoisie, and of plantation owners who began to raise cash crops for export. These groups wanted barriers to trade torn down and social flexibility so that they would have a mobile workforce at their disposal. They formed a distinct political opposition to the conservatism of traditional plantation owners who had controlled their societies through their control of the land and sought to maintain feudal social structure and organization.”

    How does this differ, in essence, from capitalism?

    If, by “embedded capitalism”, the authors mean Keynesianism, then I’m not on the same page as they are at all. You and I have previously had quite an exchange over the historic roots of capitalism and you said that you were a fan of Wallerstein. Wallerstein dates the birth of capitalism to the 15th century, if not earlier, if memory serves me correctly. It may have taken until the early 19th century for capitalism to be called liberalism, but I see no essential difference between capitalism and liberalism. As for Keynes, he was just trying to ameliorate the worst effects of the capitalist business cycle. I see nothing in common between what the authors of the book you reviewed call “embedded capitalism” and Polanyi’s definition of embedded markets.

    It seems to me that the authors are really talking about what I discussed in the penultimate paragraph of my comment. In the authors’ world, “disembedded capitalism” is laissez-faire, re-embedded capitalism is Keynesianism and now we have “disembedded capitalism” again, with a new name for it: neo-liberalism, instead of laissez-faire. This is just obfuscating nit-picking, in my mind. I very much prefer Polanyi’s historical and anthropological approach to these near-sighted academic arguments.

    • The words differ in that capitalism is a totalizing economy system and liberalism is a political philosophy promoted by those who wish to push capitalism in certain directions.

      For the record, I prefer the terminology you re-stated in your last paragraph just above, rather than the author’s terminology. And perhaps it would have been better for my review to have restated their three-stage conceptualization in such terms. But, terminology specifics aside, it is important to conceptualize these stages because it helps us understand that capitalism is a system that goes through stages; it is not a system that is one thing set in nature.

      If its nature has undergone multiple changes, then the idea that “there is no alternative” or that it is a natural evolution breaks down. That Polanyi, or anyone else, formulated different terminology does not make them, or anyone else, right or wrong. These are different ways of attempting to understand the world and thereby give ourselves the ability to change the world.

      Immanuel Wallerstein and his world-systems theory are indeed influences on me. There are several others. My approach is to synthesize different schools of thought and to re-apply them. For example, I am strongly influenced by the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher, and have read all but one of his many books, but I don’t consider him (or anyone) an “ultimate source” that all others either do or don’t measure against. As much as I admire Deutscher, and routinely recommend his biography of Leon Trotsky, I have disagreements with some of what he wrote.

      I have no argument against your high opinion of Polanyi, but nobody has a monopoly on ideas. The point of We Make Our Own History is to re-integrate theory and practice, and develop a theory of social movements. That is badly needed. Theory or practice on their own are useless; it is only when theory and practice are unified, and develop from one another, that social movements can be effective. Note that the authors state that theory is something developed from the activity of activists in attempting to make sense of their world and become more effective, not something that is the province of a handful of rarefied thinkers. I can not see that as “near-sighted.”

  6. Reblogged this on sherwainepresents and commented:
    This is definitely worth a read

  7. Joseph Glynn says:

    Great review. This kind of thinking is needed, hugely relevant and insightful. I need this book!

  8. David Morris says:

    104 dollar book no google preview, wtf?

    • You can go directly to the publisher, Pluto Press — I linked twice to the page in the post. You’ll find it listed for a small fraction of “104 dollars.” Also, there are consortiums of independent books sellers online, such as Abe Books, where books can often be found on discounts.

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