IV.4 The new antisystemic movements



IV.4 The new antisystemic movements

The concept of antisystemic movements is one which presumes an analytic perspective about a system. The system referred to here is the world-system of historical capitalism which, we argue, has given rise to a set of antisystemic movements. It is the contours of this process that we are proposing to outline here. We are in search of the system-wide structural processes that have produced certain kinds of movements and which have simultaneously formed the constraints within which such movements have operated. (Giovanni Arrighi, Terence Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein 1989: 1)

IV.4.1 ‘Old’ and ‘new’ antisystemic movements

Resistance to the world-scale structural processes of capitalist accumulation, expressed in organised social movements, has traditionally been confined to the nation-state. Indeed, the triumph of the ‘old’ social movements (OSMs, that is, labour organised in trade unions and mass political parties) was fundamental in providing the nation-states with legitimacy and power. This culminated in the establishment of the welfare state in the post-WW II, which in world-systemic terms was the material expansion phase of the USA SCA, as seen in section II.3.7.

The USA SCA’s signal crisis of 1968-1973 was a watershed in the organisation of antisystemic movements. The ‘new’ social movements (NSMs) that emerged were apparently not related to the traditional class and status-group conflicts or even related to each other, and some of them, such as the peace or ecological movements, were transnational in nature. Nevertheless, they seemed to challenge the logic of the capitalist world-system even more strongly than the OSMs.

In this section we will study the structural processes that are shaping the new antisystemic movements. We will start by defining the central conflict that opposes antisystemic movements to the capitalist world system. We will then study the characteristics of the new antisystemic movements, and finally we will question how antisystemic they in fact are.

IV.4.2 The central conflict

Economic rationality consists in maximising the efficiency with which the means of production are employed. Efficiency is here defined by the profit realised from given labour and capital inputs. The complexity of the social system and its production machinery means that the central economic task of deciding what, how, and for whom to produce can not be done efficiently in a command economy. The collapse of ‘real existing socialism’ not only confirmed this, it also showed that there is no alternative model of resource allocation to individual market transactions.

However, maximisation of overall economic efficiency is not the only human goal and value. In the modern (post-Enlightenment) world, the restrictions on economic rationality imposed by social and religious constraints mostly disappeared, and Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of free market relations gained predominance over other areas.

The social democrat movement that arose in the second half of the 19th century and came to power after the war in most advanced capitalist countries had as a goal to impose limits on economic rationality as expressed by the free market. A struggle developed in order to restrict the fields in which economic rationality could hold sway. This led to e.g. limited (shorter) working hours, rest days, paid holidays, health insurance, minimum wage.

The central conflict that opposes antisystemic movements to the capitalist system is then whether economic rationality should be subordinated to the aims of society or whether society should be subordinated to the valorisation of capital:

The objective … is to subject economic and technical development to a pattern and orientations which have been thought through and democratically debated; to tie in the goals of the economy with the free public expression of felt needs, instead of creating needs for the sole purpose of enabling capital to expand and commerce to develop. (André Gorz 1994: 8)

In the UK and US SCAs, the foremost claim of the labour movement struggle was limitation of working periods, which reduced capitalists’ control over labour, and increased the time during which the workers could pursue their own interests. This implied control of leisure, of intellect (through increased time available for education), and even of political power (e.g. due to higher educational levels) (Roediger 1989: vii-ix). While this struggle was continued during the USA SCA, the main claims were however related to the establishment of the universal Keynesian welfare state[24]. The inherent redistribution is, again, a dent on economic rationality, as the answers for the basic question of economics,what, how, and for whom to produce?’ (Begg 1984: 2), become to a large extent (up to 50% of GDP in e.g. Scandinavian countries) ‘social services, by the state, for all citizens’.

It is important to note that claims related both to reduction of working hours and to social provision have a great capacity to unify labour across the lines of craft, race, sex, skill, and age, as all workers have something to gain, which led to wide-based trade unions and social democrat (Second International) parties. We will now study the nature of the new antisystemic movements and how that is translated into their claims and modes of organisation.

IV.4.3 Fragmented identities and the new antisystemic movements

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 1848: 4)

The notion of class relationships has been a tool with which to analize systemic conflicts and forms of domination in complex societies. … In systems like contemporary ones, where classes as real social groups are withering away, more appropriate concepts are required. (Alberto Melucci 1994: 103)

In the after-WW II, the traditional antisystemic movements were very successful in the western world, with their main program – the welfare state – becoming mainstream, accepted even by the conservative parties. As a result, by the 1960s and early 1970s there was a tremendous widening and deepening of bureaucratic (statal) organisations, which went together with their growing incapacity to fulfil the expectations on which their emergence and expansion had been based (Arrighi 1989: 33-41). Several new social movements arose[25] that used increasingly effective direct forms of action[26], the main ones being (see e.g. Laraña 1994, Burback 1997, Keck 1998): peace movements; environmental groups; militant feminists; gay and lesbian rights movements; black and other anti-racist movements; human rights organisations; third world solidarity organisations; animal rights campaigners[27].

These movements seem to be very different from each other, however, they share common characteristics that set them apart from earlier social movements (notwithstanding often having roots in the OSMs). While the labour/social democrat antisystemic movements had per force to be state-based in order to build the welfare state, the NSMs are not state-based, and indeed have at their core an anti-bureaucratic stance (Pepper 1993: 136). Also, the NSMs take an instrumental view of trade unions, parties, and even states, claiming rights at different levels.

The NSMs are also difficult to classify on ideological or class terms: “NSMs stand in sharp contrast to the working-class movement and to the Marxist conception of ideology as a unifying and totalizing element for collective action. …. They exhibit a pluralism of ideas and values, and they tend to have pragmatic orientations and search for institutional reforms that enlarge the systems of members’ participation in decision making” (Johnston 1994: 6-7). The focus is not primarily on economic problems but on cultural and symbolic issues, often linked to personal identity and involving private aspects of life (such as sexual orientation). Conventional channels of representation are clearly not adequate to deal with these issues, and are replaced by alternative forms:

The normal situation is a network of small groups submerged in daily life that require personal involvement in the creation and experimentation of cultural models. These networks only come into the open over specific problems, for example, mobilizations for peace. Although the hidden network is composed of small, separate groups, it is a circuit of exchanges. Individuals and information circulate through the network, and there are specific agencies (the professionalized nuclei) that insure a certain amount of unity. The hidden network allows multiple membership; it is part-time with respect to both life course and to the amount of time it absorbs; and requires personal commitment and affective solidarity of those who belong to it. (Alberto Melucci 1994: 127)

The personal commitment and solidarity has however an obverse side. “The individuals in the contemporary enterprise are far too atomized to cultivate bonds of solidarity, far too rootless to find in the notion of social class an answer to their need to belong. Integrated into the enterprise whose regulations they master, but vulnerable nevertheless, solitary, remote from any tangible product, they owe it to themselves to be ‘conformist’; but this conformity does not afford them an identity” (Guéhenno 1995: 44). This identity can be found in the clans of the age of networks, that is, “homogeneous groups allowing integration in a human scale, but still adapted to the modern world’s system[28]” (Cathelat 1997: 38) that allow, and indeed require, multiple membership (Guéhenno 1995: 105-110, Allum 1995: 145). Not only the struggle for the common good loses meaning, ‘common good’ itself becomes “an absurd proposition” (Santos 1998: 17).

This society of multiple identities is facilitating the unravelling of the association of citizenship with nation-states and nationality (Meehan 1994: 8). While traditional antisystemic groups used universal constructs such as equality and class solidarity as the basis for their claims, the new ones use fragmentation to claim rights for single-interest groups. Multiple membership leads to the concept of the ‘segmented citizen’ (Neunreither 1995: 5), who can claim segmented benefits at different levels[29] (e.g. as a Berliner, as a German, and as a European, plus as a member of a multitude of interest groups). European citizenship becomes like that “of the Roman Empire in which citizens were able to appeal to more than one set of enforceable standards when claming their rights” (Meehan 1994: 2).

The central conflict is thus still over the extent and limits of economic rationality, but its contents and actors have changed. The central conflict is now between the technologic/scientific/bureaucratic apparatus – and its social and human consequences, including environmental degradation and commodification of social relations in the ‘service society’ – and individuals who want to shape their own lives. Technical power within the production process can no longer be transformed into political power outside it, because most modern workers no longer understand the highly complex technology that they merely supervise, and hence cannot question the capitalist relations of production (Gorz 1994: 69-72). The workers must instead distance themselves from work and act in their capacity as individuals – citizens, consumers, users of public and private facilities and so on – that is, through the (normally single-issue) NSMs.

IV.4.4 How anti-systemic are the new antisystemic movements?

A nation of winners cannot grieve over the fate of the weak or those who are unable to keep up; it will function all the better the more effectively it marginalizes these “new poor”, from whom – as was not the case with the proletarian masses of the last century – it has nothing to fear and no benefit to derive, except perhaps in so far as they might provide cheap services for the most able. (André Gorz 1994: 19)

These movements seem to challenge the capitalist world system in a more fundamental way than the labour movement. Ecologists question the basis of capitalist development – to view nature as a resource to be used – as well as the technologic/scientific complex on which modern society is based (Bomberg 1998: 7, Chew 1997: 389). Feminist and anti-racist movements challenge the two main traditional mechanisms of formation of the world-wide core-periphery structure (Wallerstein 1995a: 25, 77-80).

However, it is often assumed that all movements that engaged in struggle with the system are antisystemic, when often they are fighting for their own immediate goals (Wager 1995: 5-6): “Conflict … need not necessarily entail antagonism against the logic of the system but may, instead, express a demand for the different distribution of resources or for new rules” (Melucci 1994: 107-108). Ecology, feminism, and other NSMs are mostly concerns of the educated middle class, that is, the non-geographic core, which politically marginalises the underclass, that is, the non-geographic periphery[30] (Pepper 1993: 139,151). It was the prosperity and rising affluence of the post WW II era that meant that basic material needs were satisfied for a high share of the western population. This allowed the shift to the post-materialist concerns embodied in the NSMs (Bomberg 1998: 12).

The green movement can be roughly divided into ‘deep’ and ‘light’ greens, that is, ecocentric and technocentric perspectives. Ecocentrism views humankind as part of a global ecosystem and subject to ecological laws, and advocates a restructuring of society into small-scale communities using ‘soft’ technology that they can own and control. Technocentrism recognises environmental problems, but believes that careful management is the answer, with environmental taxes, setting of national and international standards and the like, and further technological progress (Pepper 1993: 32-36).

While ‘light’ green technocentrism is clearly a survival strategy for the political status quo, ‘deep’ green ecocentrism is more often than not pursued through lifestylism, that is, changing the individual way of life (e.g. choice of food, clothes, etc.). This is an attempt to by-pass the capitalist system, and leaves its broad structures unchanged, even unchallenged in a direct way[31] (Pepper 1993: 15-19). In fact, green consumerism has a two-fold function of supporting capitalism: it “provides the corporate sector with a rich resource of potential revenue” (Bomberg 1998: 14), and becomes a useful warning and corrective mechanism whereby capitalism can adjust its ecological contradictions and assimilate protest (Pepper 1993: 151). In Guéhenno’s words, “[t]he new conformity is less easily graspable and on the surface more tolerant: nonconformity is no longer a threat to it. On the contrary, because of the impetus it gives to the social machine, nonconformity has its usefulness” (Guéhenno 1995: 81).

A similar critique can be made of the feminist movement (and of other NSMs); ‘the personal is political’ is a favourite green and feminist phrase. Further, it is common for feminists to criticise socialism (as well as environmentalism) for failing to take into account women issues explicitly, and then failing themselves to take into account explicitly other, such as ethnic minorities (see e.g. Mellor 1992 and Dickinson 1998).

In fact, NSMs create strong us/them boundaries, as they require the formation of a collective identity and the valorisation of their ‘essential difference’ from the rest of society (Klandermans 1994: 168-169). Workers with different group memberships seek to protect relative advantages obtained during the USA SCA, and resent taxation that supports the welfare state. Class identity and solidarity comes under stress as the ‘common good’ increasingly loses meaning (Flacks 1994: 335-336). “When the ‘working class’ was perceived as a large and growing voting block, cutting back on social protection was rarely envisaged. Once the working class was perceived as shrinking and fragmented, nothing was sacrosanct” (Standing 1997: 208). The NSMs are thus facilitating the internalisation of the core-periphery structure, as we will now see.

IV.4.5 Antisystemic movements and the core-periphery structure

Social explosions and upheavals will continue to occur but at this moment they do not appear destined to lead to revolutionary transformations in the traditional sense; there simply is no guiding political philosophy or revolutionary organization capable of assuming power. Thus reformism is the most viable path to pursue, a reformism however that needs to draw its force from the social upheavals and postmodern societies of today’s world. (Roger Burbach, Orlando Núñez and Boris Kagarlitsky 1997: 166)

These issues are best understood by taking into account the world core-periphery structure. During UK and USA hegemony, coreness “entailed a kind and degree of ‘revenue’ flow that allowed ‘redistribution’ without (all that much) pain” (Arrighi 1989: 92) (to which one should add the core states’ need of their populations to fight this century’s total wars and to participate in mass production and consumption after WW II). In this respect, the USA SCA antisystemic movements ensured the smooth functioning of the world system through an historic compromise with capital – epitomised in Germany’s Mitbestimmung – whereby redistribution was restricted to the core populations.

A new structure is now being superimposed to this geographic core-periphery structure, as studied in section III.5. Out of the working and middle class an elite is emerging, constituted by the techno-bureaucracy (e.g. lawyers, accountants, engineers, scientists) and by the symbol manipulators (e.g. media and IT people, spin doctors, image consultants, designers). This elite of ‘knows’ is well integrated in the networked society, and constitutes the main membership of the NSMs (Pepper 1993: 150, 208). The non-business/state groups that have privileged access to the relevant networks (e.g. the EU lobbying process – see section IV.2.1) obey the fragmentation logic of interest representation where the nation is no longer the horizon of mobilisation (Ion 1997: 103).

The new social movements, such as feminists or ecologists have claimed and obtained social rights guaranteed by the EU, and enforced by the European Court of Justice (Newmann 1997: 148, Meehan 1994: 52-54). They have thus “increased worldwide pressure for higher wage-levels with world capital seeking ever more to respond to this pressure by reducing the size of labor input. As a result, there has perforce been a rising level of material well-being for a significant sector of workers and a deepening relative immiseration of many others” (Arrighi 1989: 112; see also Cohen 1997: 134-138).

The new antisystemic movements can then be seen to be struggling with capital, not to change the world system, but to obtain (or keep) the benefits of coreness, progressively excluding the ‘knows-not’, that is, the new periphery that is being formed in the traditional core regions (USA, Western Europe, Japan). Their function is hence exactly the same as that of the old antisystemic movement (the reformist social democrat parties), once the changing core-periphery structure is taken into account, and the underlying purpose of the central conflict in which antisystemic movements are engaged is to share in the coreness benefits extracted from the marginalised periphery[32], whereby redistribution was restricted to the core populations.

IV.4.6 Limited redistribution of surplus as an ad interim objective made sole goal

The people involved in the new antisystemic movements are often politically left wing, with many of them coming from the traditional USA SCA antisystemic movements with which they are disillusioned (Keck 1998: 15), and do not see themselves at all as part of the world-wide capitalist process. On the contrary, some of the social movements call for a basic transformation of the system of inequality, however, ad interim objectives are pursued en route. As Wallerstein notes, this is a traditional feature of antisystemic movements since the Communist manifesto and the ensuing struggle to reach state power (Wallerstein 1984: 104). By and large it is the negotiation of these ad interim objectives (occasionally involving confrontation) with capital that leads both to the incorporation of the antisystemic movements in the capitalist world-system and to a correction mechanism for some of capitalism’s contradictions.

In the analysis above we have disregarded the existence of truly antisystemic movements, that is, movements whose goal is a radical change of the system. One must note, however, that movements that demand change only in what concerns their particular claims are in fact, as argued above, only concerned with limited redistribution of surplus[33]. Furthermore, movements that start out declaring a ‘radical’ agenda very often move to compromise, and thus the distinction between ‘radical’ and ‘reformist’ antisystemic movements is often a question of degree rather than of essence.

Even proposals for a global labour movement (which is necessary to counter a globalised capitalism) tend to ignore environmental, gender and ethnic minorities issues (see e.g. Nash 1998). On the other hand, an environmentally sound world system could be fully consistent with oppression and patriarchy (e.g. enforced limitation of consumption for the majority, forced mass sterilisations, as well as other proposals put forward by right wing survivalism – see Pepper 1993: 32).

The question is how necessary it is to establish an explicit alliance between all the relevant single-issue NSMs. Single-issue groups are indeed the appropriate antisystemic structure in the EwE society based on networks, however, the main argument of this section is that attacks on single aspects of the capitalist system under the new stateless hegemony do not lead to its breakdown, as it uses those attacks to recompose itself (while rewarding the attackers).



[24] More in Europe than in the USA, where hegemony implied a higher degree of surplus extraction from the world and allowed high standards of life to American workers without the need for a full-blown European‑style welfare state.

[25] It should also be noted that mass parties came to power by supporting some mass constituencies and oppressing others such as women, ethnic minorities and the least skilled workers. These minorities are now mobilising, as the social democratic parties no longer offer a credible, majoritarian program to meet the needs of both the relatively advantaged and the emerging groups (Flacks 1994: 336).

[26] These include personal lifestyle change, setting up communes and coops, strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, obstructions, violence against property but not people, setting up contact groups with authorities, etc.

[27] Other social movements such as the new religions (e.g. small sects, New Age, US radical protestant churches) will be ignored because, although their network forms of organisation are often similar to the NSMs studied here, their aims and purpose are rather different, and can not be considered as antisystemic.

[28] NPB translation.

[29] The EU favours this process through its extensive reliance on external knowledge. This is particularly true for Directorate General XI (for the environment) (Bomberg 1998: 43).

[30] Sokal and Bricmont also note that the anti-technology, anti-science, anti-rationality stance of most NSMs favour the system they are supposed to attack: “All those who have political or economic power would rather have science or technology as such being attacked, because these attacks contribute to hide the power relationships, which themselves are not rational, and on which their power is based. Furthermore, by attacking rationality the post-modern left deprives itself from a powerful tool to criticise the current social order” (Sokal 1997: 203, NPB translation).

[31] Lifestylism’s “anti-statist, anti-collective, people-must-take-responsibility-for-their-own-lives, individualistic ethos meshes well with Thatcherite liberalism” (Pepper 1993: 151).

[32] The core-periphery structure is environmental as well. High profitability can afford higher protection, and environmental quality is linked to affluence, while making less privileged areas subject to deforestation, waste dumps, and other forms of environmental disruption (Bartley 1997). This point of view has entered the main stream political debate, with even the Vatican arguing that environmental protection requires equitative development (Cor Unum 1997: 43-44)

[33] This includes e.g. greens that want developing countries to limit their pollutant emissions – at levels much inferior to those in the core countries (the 40% maximum increase of CO2 emission, relative to the current level of each country, agreed in the Rio de Janeiro conference, is a blatant example, as 0% of nothing is still nothing while 40% of the USA level is more than the emissions of all unindustrialised countries put together).