Contemporary global society appears to be dominated by massive starvation, climate crises, terrorist violence, police shootings, street demonstrations, unpredictable election outcomes, and an enormous array of political mobilizations. To some the historical period in which we live is understood as one of global chaos; a time of uncontrollable and unpredictable physical and social change. For others, the period is best understood from a post-modern lens; claiming that social, political, or environmental circumstances cannot be explained by any coherent narrative or explanation.
However, surveying literature on global political economy, social movements, and contemporary history suggests that various common themes and connections can be drawn to help us better understand the twenty-first century and become more effective political actors. Understanding four inextricably linked political, social, and economic factors may give clarity to an understanding of the twenty-first century and inform debates about how to change circumstances. These phenomena are neoliberal globalization, austerity, resistance, and reaction.
Neoliberal globalization refers to the changing features of the international political economy that have emerged from the 1970s. Globalization is a shorthand way of referring to the qualitative increase in cross-national interactions of corporations, banks, non-governmental institutions, and people that are supported by or challenge the prerogatives of traditional nation-states. The rise of the internet has virtually eliminated space and time as variables constraining the development of global corporations, financial speculation, war making and social movements in resistance.
Neoliberalism connotes a kind of economic policy that governments, international financial institutions, and corporations and banks promote to transform the way nations and people organize their lives. The neoliberal policy agenda demands that countries cut their public spending, privatize their public institutions, and deregulate their economies. In addition, poor countries are required to redirect their economies to produce commodities for export to earn scarce foreign exchange (to repay the debt accrued to foreign banks).
During the 1970s dramatic increases in the price of oil most countries needed to develop forced them to borrow money to maintain their oil imports. Banks which had accumulated huge surplus capital from oil profits needed to put the money to use. The two forces, the need to borrow money on the one hand and the need to lend it on the other, created the global system of debt that gave the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, private banks, and a handful of rich countries the leverage to transform international politics and economics.
The neoliberal policies that spread to virtually every nation increased globalization and led every country to adopt these policies which are often called austerity. Public institutions have been privatized; benefits to citizens have been reduced ranging from health care to education, to transportation, to old age assistance; and guaranteed minimally acceptable wages have been allowed to stagnate. Worker rights to organize have been eliminated. Jobs were lost. Those who still could work have lost workplace benefits. Work is being routinized and demand for skilled work has declined. And through a combination of administrative changes and technology more and more work has become obsolete.
Therefore, work itself has become precarious and as a consequence the informal sector has grown; that is people hustling on the streets and back allies to make some money have become characteristic features of the quest for survival across Latin America, Africa, and Asia and big cities in rich and poor countries. Millions, particularly those who lost access to land, have become migrants desperately seeking work. And all this has proceeded as governments cut taxes on the wealthy.
Virtually every policy embraced by most countries involves the transfer of societal wealth from the increasingly poor majority to the rich minority. That is the primary purpose of austerity policies. To put it succinctly, governments have embraced policies that starve workers to increase the wealth of financiers and huge multinational corporations.
The era of neoliberal globalization and the austerity policies that institutionalized the new age have generated growing protest everywhere. A recent study of worldwide protests (Isabel Ortiz, Sara Burke, Mohamed Berrada, Hernan Cortes, World Protests 2006-2013) indicates that protest activities, largely motivated by economic circumstance and the desire for democratization, have spread to nearly half the countries in the world since 2006. During the second decade of the new century media have reported on rebellions from Tahrir Square to Madison, Wisconsin, around issues of austerity and democracy. Austerity has animated workers in Greece, Spain, and Ireland. Student rebellions against cuts in government support for education have occurred in Quebec, Santiago, Chile, and throughout the United States. In the Global South particularly, workers have protested against land grabs, the International Monetary Fund, so-called “free trade” and the effect of neoliberalism on workers, peasants, indigenous people, women, and on the rapid destruction of the environment.
Further, anti-austerity movements have increasingly conceptualized the connections between neoliberal globalization, austerity, and parallel issues that are ultimately driven by the economy: the climate crisis, rising military budgets and war, crumbling infrastructure, attacks on women and people of color, the destruction of the labor movement, and the intrusion of wealth in the political process. Reverend William Barber who has inspired the Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina refers to the resistance strategy that is driven by the vision of the interconnections of these issues, as “fusion politics.”
The movements of global resistance have grown enormously, particularly since the recession of 2008, as has reaction. Violent reaction from rightwing movements, in some places in the form of fascist and white racist campaigns, has spread. With a few more degrees of respectability rightwing populist parties such as the Tea Party in the United States have mobilized to pressure their more dignified neoconservatives and Wall Street liberals to support austerity and state repression of resistance.
State violence against public campaigns has increased. In the United States police killings of African Americans have increased. Police agencies and vigilante groups have engaged in terrorism against so-called “illegal” immigrants. And governments have passed laws limiting mobilizations in public spaces. Through the use of implied police terror, laws, coded messages in the media that groups of people are “gangs” or “thugs,” efforts are being made to crush rising social movements.
Building Twentieth-First Century Movements for Change
The connections between neoliberal globalization, austerity, resistance, and reaction make clear that the world of the twenty-first century is not primarily beyond understanding. It does suggest however that the direction of change in which the world is headed is fraught with danger from neoliberalism, austerity, and violent reaction. And it is this threat to humanity and the planet itself that is spawning various movements for social change. These movements are spreading, occur all across the face of the globe, emerge around specific issues, and ultimately are driven by a changing global political economy. It is the consciousness of these interconnections and growing violence that activists need to address as they educate, agitate, and organize for a new global society.