Despite increasing inequality and social deprivation in Europe since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007-8, right-wing parties, such as the French Front National and the German Alternative for Deutschland, have benefited the most in recent elections. Does the electoral failure of the Left indicate that there is no progressive resistance against austerity and neo-liberal restructuring in Europe? Not so say the authors of Beyond Defeat and Austerity: Disrupting (the Critical Political Economy of) Neoliberal Europe. In this blog post Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton provide a critical review of the book and some pointers as to wider debates that it may inform.
In this path-breaking book David J. Bailey, Mònica Clua-Losada, Nikolai Huke and Olatz Ribera-Almandoz have developed what they describe as a disruption-oriented approach to resistance, which overcomes a negative assessment of the state of the Left. There is a danger, these authors argue, that a focus solely on the electoral terrain obscures ongoing contestation of neoliberal restructuring.
‘This current round of crises, we argue, has not only led to a “hardening” of European and national state structures, but has also witnessed novel forms of organising from below, and resistant subjectivities that – albeit sometimes having the appearance of being both fragile and temporary in nature – nevertheless opened potential avenues for radical social change’ (pp. 2-3).
A disruption-oriented approach is able to reveal that neoliberalisation is anything but stable and assured in and beyond Europe. It ‘should instead be viewed as a fragile, troubled and hard-fought development’ (p. 238). In order to analyse the ongoing disruption of neoliberalism, these authors suggest moving beyond a focus only on the struggle for state power and also widening the optic to encompass different territories in resistance and radical ruptures. Focusing on the agency of contestation opens up new avenues towards a potential transformation of the current situation. ‘Disruption-oriented accounts highlight the creative capacity of labour, the new forms of activity it undertakes, and its endless ability to adapt to and create new social contexts. Capital is thus considered secondary and reactive’ (p. 26). In our thinking the disruption-oriented perspective sits well alongside a focus on radicalised dialectics proposed by George Ciccariello-Maher that addresses the contested nature of all identities, such that division and rupture have to be foregrounded and combatively insisted upon as part of the violent, antagonistic, and contradictory open-ended dimensions of class struggle.
In contrast with the focus on decolonising dialectics, though, the sphere of social reproduction including housing, education and health services are especially identified and treated in detail by the authors of Beyond Defeat and Austerity as locations of ongoing radical disruption and contestation. When the housing bubble burst in Spain in 2008 due to the global financial market crisis, the socio-spatial political economy of Spain went into crisis. In 2012, in order to secure the country’s financial sector, the Spanish government had ‘to borrow from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) of the so-called “Troika”, and in turn to sign a Memorandum of Understanding which brought with it draconian austerity measures’ (p. 147). As a result, the health sector in Madrid was earmarked for privatisation. ‘After the plans became public, employees enclosed themselves in the hospitals (encierros) and organised assemblies with a massive participation of the workforce. This represented the birth of the marea blanca. Regular assemblies took place in every one of the affected hospitals that quickly expanded to include users of health services’ (p. 150). In short, a broad alliance – in this case militant workers and public health users – came together to protect health care as a public good and ultimately were successful in halting privatisation.
Austerity has not only affected crisis countries in Continental Europe. In the UK, for example, Conservative-led governments have passed one austerity budget after another since 2010. And yet, here too, we can identify ongoing ruptures, new movements challenging austerity. In the country’s housing crisis, especially in London, students have been highly active. In 2015 and 2016, students at University College London engaged in large-scale rent strikes in protest over increasingly unaffordable student accommodation. ‘The final outcome saw the Cut the Rent group herald a victory, as UCL agreed to make available £350,000 for the academic year 2016-17, to fund accommodation bursaries for those students in most need of financial support, and £500,000 for the following year, as well as agreeing to freeze rent for 2016/17’ (p. 224).
As with any book, though, one may point to some gaps in the volume. First, the focus on progressive disruptions might be in danger of leading to an over optimistic picture about the potential of transformation towards a different political economy. One quibble could be that there is little acknowledgement of the structuring conditions of capitalism, which constrain the room of manoeuvre for agencies of resistance. Equally, while contestation is ongoing, can substantial change actually be obtained without taking state power, be it at the local, regional or national level? Second, the contestation around Brexit is mentioned in the last chapter, but the current challenge of the extreme right, racialised politics, and its xenophobic policies in the UK and elsewhere and what this may imply for disruption-oriented struggles by the Left is little discussed.
Nevertheless, these small points of criticism should not distract from the excellent contributions by this book. This volume successfully debunks the idea that neoliberalism and austerity are firmly established in Europe. In fact, austerity is constantly contested by a new, disruptive form of agency at the workplace and across society.
This volume is a contribution of utmost importance to understanding exploitation and resistance in Europe, a must-read for everyone interested in progressive ways out of the crisis!
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. They are joint authors of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
This post was first published on the Progress in Political Economy blog on 16 October 2016.