In recent decades, there has been an explosion of social movements and protest around an ever-growing range of issues. To the casual observer, tree-sits by Earth First! activists to protect old-growth forests, courageous farmerworkers organizing to end modern-day slavery in Florida’s tomato fields, and young military veterans reenacting war scenarios in uniform on the streets of New York have little to do with each other.
However, in his new book “The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-Liberal America,” Dawson Barrett makes a compelling argument that these seemingly disparate movements — for environmental and economic justice, to end U.S. militarism and wars abroad, and even the rise of youth countercultures, like those that birthed punk rock and hip hop — are in fact far more connected than is first apparent. They are all responding to the different manifestations of the neoliberal economic model, which prioritizes corporate profits over people and the environment.
Despite their valiant efforts, Barrett contends that organizers today have yet to secure the “wide-reaching, concrete accomplishments of earlier movements.” In this interview, he expands on why this is the case, what particular campaigns have done to win meaningful victories in recent years, and where he sees glimmers of hope today.
How do you define the post-liberal era, and why do you think social movement victories have been so “rare and dishearteningly limited” in recent decades?
The shift was actually messy and gradual, but I mark the post-liberal era as beginning with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. From roughly the 1930s into the 1970s, mainstream politicians of both parties had more or less accepted liberal economic planks (taxes on the rich and powerful, basic guarantees of workers’ rights, environmental protections, etc.), thus making it the liberal era.
Since Reagan, though, both parties have pursued what is called neoliberalism, a confusing word that basically just means tax cuts for the rich, service cuts for the working and middle classes, de-regulation of industry and public money for corporations through privatization. Some people have suggested more useful terms for neoliberalism, including “casino capitalism” (the house always wins) and “Jurassic Park capitalism” (maybe we get eaten in the end). Those both sound about right to me. Bluntly speaking, neoliberalism funnels trillions of dollars from the public into the pockets of the extremely wealthy — that’s the goal, in fact, and it has worked well.
This shift has also had profound impacts on protest movements. The protest waves of the 1930s and 1960s eras, despite the incredible levels of violence directed at them, forced a long list of major reforms, largely because they were able to exploit the vulnerabilities of the people at the top: rifts within the Democratic Party, the global political context of the Cold War, and the emergence of television, among others.
The people at the top learned their lessons, though, and they have worked smartly since then to eliminate those pressure points. One significant barrier for protest movements is that the establishment wings of both parties agree on so many issues. Both parties take neoliberalism for granted, and that has severely limited what can be done at the ballot box.
Reagan, Bush and Trump have used what you call “saboteur appointments” as an effective tactic to thwart progressive change. In what ways can activists adapt under these difficult circumstances to still push forward their agenda?
It is outrageously undemocratic, but appointing saboteurs (putting major polluters in charge of the EPA, for example) has been very successful. It basically handcuffs the parts of the government that actually help people — and the effect is that it doesn’t matter what laws are passed in these areas, as they won’t be enforced anyway. Stacking the U.S. Supreme Court with a dependable, pro-wealthy majority achieves similar goals.
In response, we have seen decades of heroic civil disobedience campaigns, such as the stands against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. These campaigns may slow down the fossil fuel industry, but at this point, actually defeating the saboteurs would require something much larger. There would have to be a progressive movement that could not only win elections, but win them with a party that is serious about these issues. In the case of, say, climate change, the Democratic Party is not. So we have our work cut out for us on several levels — in the party, at the ballot box and in the streets. And we have to win them all.
What role do you see punk rock, hip hop and graffiti having played in supporting and sustaining social movements from the 1970s onward?
Youth subcultures have often been incubators for rebellion against authority — in this case, you could easily point to anti-Reagan punk songs or rap songs about police brutality. Subcultural politics are not as straightforward as some of the other examples in the book, and they are full of contradictions and missteps. But I try to point to some of the more concrete political action that comes out of the punk movement (and there are many terrific books that do the same for hip-hop).
During a time when the power of organized labor was waning, what was key to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ successful campaign for better pay and working conditions?
One of the key principles of protest politics is that you have to know the right people to pressure, and this can be a much more difficult task than you would guess — particularly as supply chains now span the globe. In the case of the CIW, Florida farmworkers had to figure out who could actually meet their demands for better wages and an end to modern-day slavery in the fields. Because the supply chain is so convoluted, they had to go over the heads of their immediate employers, ultimately focusing on tomato purchasers, such as grocery stores and fast food restaurants. Then, they had to figure out how those companies, which also have incredibly complicated structures, were vulnerable.
In short, they discovered new pressure points in the economic power structure — and then they built a broad coalition to attack those points.
Your book lays out some of the unique challenges that the peace movement faces in the United States, such as the privatization of war and the virtual immunity of military contractors to public pressure. Do you have any advice for organizers on how they might overcome these hurdles?
Peace movements face some unique challenges, but this may not be one of them at this point. In short, military contractors are not vulnerable to public boycotts, and they enjoy almost universal, bipartisan support from those who hand them billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars to wage war.
This privatization model, though, is also now the norm in many other areas, for example the for-profit companies caging people across the country, including the children separated from their families.
To be clear, I’m a historian, not a movement strategist. So I don’t think I am the person to speak to advice for organizers. I do think the recent protests against for-profit prison companies are on the right track — a strategy that recognizes that both ICE facilities and these corporations have to be pressured. Along similar lines, peace movements must find ways to make wars less profitable. Smarter people than me have some good ideas about how.
You argue that movements have been unable to find an effective counter to the dominant neoliberal “free market” ideology. Do you see the growth of the “new economy,” the rising influence of the Democratic Socialists of America and the increasing popularity of socialism — especially among young people — as potentially offering any serious challenge to the status quo?
Well, I do think there are some interesting threads to watch. Issues like wealth inequality and the dwindling opportunities of the middle and working classes built excitement not just for the Bernie Sanders campaign but also some of the early momentum for Donald Trump — his disingenuous criticism of NAFTA and Wall Street, for example. I don’t really buy that there was a lot of crossover between those two groups of voters, but there may be something there to tap into. Whether Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, Cynthia Nixon and others can do so is an open question. It’s also a little early to judge the ascendancy of DSA, but there is definitely energy. We’ll see.
Radical inequality is not new to history, and the people at the top are quite good at channeling the desperation and fear that their policies create into things like war and racial resentment. We are at a crossroads, and there are paths that lead to a more just and human world, but also paths that lead to a Mad Max-style hellscape.
Movements have by and large been fighting defensive battles, you contend, which can be necessary. What would a more offensive effort look like, both in terms of its goals and tactics? Are there any particular struggles in recent decades or ones that are unfolding today that you see as pointing the way?
That is the big question, and failing to answer it has not been for lack of trying.
I think we have seen more clearly offensive efforts in the last few years actually. Occupy Wall Street was one promising iteration. People forget, but before it was finally crushed (violently), OWS was enormous: encampments in hundreds of cities, sit-ins in banks, mass marches and labor strikes. And there was even public sympathy for protesters when police brutalized them — that in itself is noteworthy. Efforts to make OWS look stupid and naïve had their intended effect, though, and have shaped at least some of the popular memory of it.
In such a rapid news cycle, I think OWS really hit on the fact that protest actions have to be around-the-clock and indefinite to grab the national imagination. If something that widespread and sustained were to happen today — and incorporated the demands and leadership of, say, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Sanctuary, the Women’s March, the high school walk-outs, the teacher strikes, the prisoner strikes, etc. — it might very well force major changes. Both political parties are fractured and vulnerable in ways that they weren’t in 2011, and, frankly, protest movements have gotten smarter. We are living in a bleak period of history, but the future isn’t yet written.
With the midterm elections approaching, how do you see the interplay between grassroots organizing and electoral politics?
Politicians are not an especially brave bunch. They happily go with the wind. Bluntly speaking, movements have to be capable of tipping elections. That is the only thing that will be more appealing than the mountains of cash that the super-rich can provide.
It does not appear that we are there just yet, but there are glimmers of hope. The push-back against anti-public education politicians in Oklahoma is one. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is another. The increased bravery of ambitious, centrist politicians like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris is also a statement. So is the decision by several others to be seen at protests — the Women’s March, the airport occupations and others.
But it will not be enough to be “not Trump.” If Democrats win in the next couple of elections but continue to make the rich richer with neoliberal policies (as Obama did), that will just be another opening for a Trump-type — and with enough tries, they might find a competent one.
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