The meaning of protest in a neoliberal world
by Tallulah Brennan
The economic crash of 2008 and the increasingly globalised world in which we live, has led to mass protests to emerge as part and parcel of the political landscape. Electoral decisions across the West have sent shockwaves to the political consensus. What was once strictly kept on the streets has expanded its parameters to the political institutions that so willingly perpetuated a neoliberal hegemony. With both banners and ballots in hand, the spirit of the people has made it clear that the scope of protest is reaching new heights in fighting capitalism.
So, why now, we may ask. The uprising against neoliberalism is global. Across the world, voters are rejecting “the lethal combination of austerity, free trade, predatory debt, and precarious, ill-paid work” that is characteristic of neoliberalism (Fraser, 2017). Let me turn first to the United States. Beginning with the Clintonist takeover of the Democrat party, workers in the US have become increasingly disillusioned and alienated by a political consensus which doesn’t even satisfy their basic needs. Regions heavily populated by the working-class were once the stronghold of New Deal Democrats (who have long fallen from prominence), but the very same regions handed the electoral college to Donald Trump in 2016 (Fraser, 2017). In Britain, inequality has only been exacerbated since the abandonment of the working class by Blair’s Labour Party. This inequality has reached new levels under the austerity programmes that have been underway since 2010, ultimately leading to the decimation of working-class communities and the gap between the poorest and richest in society continues to grow. The consequence appears to be as severe as the crumbling of parliament and the executive office, all thanks to the ‘roar of defiance against the Westminster elite’ which Brexit has come to symbolise. Whilst populism and anti-establishment rhetoric become a concern for many European countries, it is most notable that the Gilets Jaunes have shown France that the neoliberal project is at breaking point. In the 2017 Presidential election, Marine Le Pen won 34% of the vote. The ongoing protests of the Gilets Jaunes continue to undermine the presidency of Emmanuel Macron (dubbed ‘candidate of the oligarchy’), accumulating in a blend of social protest and electoral dissent that is proving toxic to the country’s political stability.
It is worth noting the incoherence of the current anti-establishment electoral protests. As ‘Make America Great Again’ rallies popped up across the country, Bernie Sanders broke the record for campaign contributions.; in France, the Gilets Jaunes have been characterised by the vast differences of ideologies within the protests. As 2016 saw the far-right declare ‘Independence Day’, the 2017 election also saw Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party come very close to No.10. Despite the ideological incoherency, I must emphasise the distrust in their political institutions and fractured relationships with the masters of these establishments, which ultimately unite these protesters. This shared interest is what is most key to the overthrow of neoliberalism.
Streek notes that in the post-financial crash neoliberal world, “capitalism ‘has entered a period of deep indeterminacy’, in which the unexpected can happen and there is no certainty what will happen” (Powell, 2017). Though protest may at times feel futile, we must comprehend a future in which the revolt of the united people can end the neoliberal dominance that is destabilising our lives. Solidarity must be found, and brought to the forefront. Whilst the hegemon may appear unlikely to collapse, if the post-economic crisis has taught us anything, it has exposed the fragility upon which neoliberalism stands.
Admittedly, it would be incorrect to suggest that Trump, Brexit or Le Pen are a severe threat to neoliberalism, when, in fact, they can be seen as its architects. Again, I will emphasise the common denominator in these electoral protests: The Elite vs The People. The far-right does not have to be at the forefront of this anti-establishment movement. Rather, the left has the ability to reclaim what is the protest against an ideology that is waging war on working people. When considering the post-2008 political climate, the mobilisation and passion of the people who have long been left behind by a broken economic model must be noted. Though we may not like the form that it has come in, specifically noting the far-right influence both before and after the Brexit referendum, such anti-establishment movements have exposed weaknesses in our broken political system that may now be exploited. The phrase ‘Power to the People’ no longer feels redundant.