Social Movements in Europe and North America Since 1989


Although they were formed during the post-war years and maintained a critical distance to the countries where real socialism and ‘party’ communism thrived, like the communist parties themselves, the social movements of Europe and the New Left in North America were impacted by the collapse of real socialism and the broad delegitimisation of radical social critique. The fall of the Berlin Wall was immediately followed by a period in which there were no relevant social movements to speak of, at least not internationally. Even the various ‘single issue struggles’ that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto Germany’s streets during the 1980s (such as the squatter movement and the Autonome movement, the peace and anti-war movement, and the anti-nuclear energy and anti-nuclear movements, as well as the campaign for the 35-hour week) all experienced a decline following the era-defining events of 1989. Alternative and activist scenes vanished; it became almost impossible to mobilise large groups for political causes, and the rebellious post-WWII generation – embodied by youth, protest and subculture – was replaced by a techno culture that initially had very little to do with politics.

However, the production of theory within social movements was already beginning to lose some of its relevance as early as the 1980s. Although the new social movements in the years of political awakening that came before, during and after 1968 played a vital role in the revitalisation of Marxist social critique, interpretations tended to be more mediated and Marx was only selectively cited. Moreover, a series of social theory ‘turns’ that took place in the 1970s (e.g. the ‘cultural turn’ and the ‘communicative turn’), as well as post-structuralism, led to a ‘changing of the guard’ in the field of social criticism and a pluralism began to take hold. This development caused clearly marked pockets to form within theoretical circles and in terms of the political approaches and focus adopted by social movements. These ‘identity politics’, as they came to be known, effectively eclipsed the proletariat-based political movements of the past. New fields came into play: feminism, gender and queer studies, post-colonial studies and anti-racism, anti-fascism, ecology and climate protection as well as animal rights. Although these issues all shared a basis in Marxist critique, it was only one of several influential sources – and one that was seen as being far less imperative than in the 1970s.

The 90s: The Anti-globalisation movement, academisation and ‘ngo-isation’

The various schools of thought that shaped politicisation and educational processes within the social movements, as well as their political praxes, during the 1980s underwent further academisation in the decade that followed. As Marx’s name increasingly disappeared from syllabuses and became confined to niche university modules, or to spaces completely separated from academic institutions, especially in Germany, students’ reading lists began to regularly feature critiques influenced by post-structuralism.

At the end of the 1990s, the anti-globalisation movement signalled the emergence of an internationally relevant, large-scale campaign. It partly led to the institutionalisation of non-governmental organisations, the most well-known example undoubtedly being the Attac network. During this time, social and civil society movements, as well as established political groups, generally went through a period of considerable ‘NGO-isation’. A series of ‘summits’ held around the turn of the millennium became a key focal point for the anti-globalisation movement. Although the summits regularly held by industrialised nations, as well as the IMF and the World Bank, had frequently been met with protest in the preceding decades, the ‘Battle of Seattle’ demonstrations against the 1999 WTO conference proved to be a watershed moment. Protesters were now imbued with a fresh momentum and zeal that suggested a new and almost global cycle of social struggles was on the horizon. The fight against globalisation seemed set to become the defining issue of the 21st century; the World Social Forums were even dubbed ‘the Fourth International’.

Among the groups affiliated with the anti-globalisation movement, but also in general public debate, Marxist theory began to experience a revival. People appeared to latch on to the idea of the global dimension of capitalism and the ‘One World of Capital’, frequently drawing on older discussions such as the Third World Movement (aka the One World Movement) or liberation theology, or examining the link to current strands of theory, such as post-operaismo and Zapatism.

2001: The anti-globalisation movement meet a premature end

This newfound momentum ended abruptly following the 2001 G8 summit held in Genoa and the terror attacks of 9/11. Social movements suddenly found themselves confronted with several fresh conflicts, the return of religion and a ‘culture war’. In Europe and North America, the peace movement and anti-war demonstrations were the only protest movements to see a rise in support during subsequent years.

Digital and social media started to become increasingly vital to the work of political activists and their mobilisation efforts. These tools also became the subject of critical analyses and the focus of media theorists, who mainly referenced Marxist media theories but also Capital.

Other factors that started to become particularly relevant during this time – in Europe, North America and beyond – were climate matters, ecology and extractivism. Here the ‘ecological issue’ was explicitly placed within the context of social issues, such as global inequality and exploitation, forced displacement and migration. Increasingly, the main overall concern was to recognise the overlap and intersectionality of a range of dominance and power structures that existed along the axes of ‘class, race and gender’ and to organise social struggles accordingly.

2007/2008: The financial crisis and its aftermath

It was only after the 2007/2008 collapse of the international banking system that social movements were able to regain the same level of international reach as the anti-globalisation movement of the late nineties/early noughties. However, these movements were now focused on fighting the effects of neoliberalism, the crisis of finance capitalism and its aftermath. There was particularly strong opposition to the politics of austerity and neoliberalism’s ‘technocratic turn’. After the globalisation debates of previous years, Marx now experienced a second renaissance, both within social movements themselves as well as in wider public discourse. People began to refer to Marx, particularly his definitions of finance capitalism and fictitious capital, as well as the role these two concepts play in capitalist crises. They also drew inspiration from Marx when analysing the economic, political and social impacts of crises as well as possible ‘resolutions’. In and around social movements, three areas received particular attention: 1. Debt and austerity as an economic and political instrument that serves the purpose of exploitation and control, 2. New forms of expropriation and appropriation, exploitation and redistribution, and 3. Alternative, solidarity-based forms of economy and the commons.

2011 to today: The return of political activism and the rise of right-wing populism

Whilst the financial crisis was being resolved by resorting to rather authoritarian measures, 2011/2012 seemed to be the year when political protests/activism suddenly made a comeback, with squares occupied around the globe, the rise of the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, as well as a series of riots in Paris, London and Athens. After the ‘end of history’ and of ideology had been rashly proclaimed after 1989, social movements around the globe suddenly, and unexpectedly, found themselves in the ascendant, if but for a brief moment in time.

What happened next was sobering on all sides, even – or rather especially – in places where left-wing parties suddenly found themselves in a position to form governments, as was the case in Latin America and Greece. Now social movements are having to come to terms with the triumphant march of right-wing populist and religious, authoritarian and nationalist political forces that display all the inherent characteristics of a ‘movement’ but that are zealously opposed to civil society. Following neoliberalism’s technocratic turn, some countries even witnessed right-wing populist groups seize power.

Now society is also reverting to Marx in order to gain a deeper understanding of this “time of monsters” (Gramsci). The question is, firstly, whether the loss or the suppression of the social question and the ‘class question’ has enabled the ideological beliefs of those the classic Left once claimed to represent to be challenged. Secondly, we need to establish the extent to which economic crises are not only associated with the rise of authoritarian ideology but also engender condensed forms of anti-capitalist thought as well as the ideological processing of events and resolutions to crises that involve anti-Semitism, racism and conspiracy theories. However, there is little direct reference to Marx himself but to the social theories he helped shape, such as his reflections on fascism and crowd psychology in critical theory or the so-called ‘Bonapartism theory’, which harks back to Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.   

Constant and loose strands of thought concerning Marx

After 1989, certain strands of thought that drew upon Marx’s writing were continuously discussed within social movements alongside current issues. One constant theme was the decline of Fordism towards the end of the 1960s and the question of how far (at least in traditional industrialised nations) a post-Fordist, neoliberal and finance capitalism-based restructuring of society has taken place. This includes elements of post-Fordist production and an increasing precarity in employment, as well as in the conditions of reproduction, combined with new types of exploitation and appropriation and new technologies that have ultimately given rise to a ‘digital capitalism’, but also new subjectivities and social battles, and, crucially, new possibilities for an emancipatory or even revolutionary form of politics.

At present, Marxist critique continues to be referenced within social movements, albeit in a casual manner and only in certain situations. But compared to the years that came immediately before 1989, considerably more space and greater significance is once again being afforded to theoretical development. It has become at once a safe haven and a battle ground, serving both as a space of personal understanding and of politicisation as well as being considered a unique form of praxis. Marx is there as a constant point of reference, but drawing upon his thinking is still by no means obligatory, and his critique is often featured alongside other strands of critical social thought. This is illustrated by the books and publications that have become associated with social movements in recent years and which have been used by those outside of such movements to identify and classify them.     

Empire, a publication by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt that appeared in 2000 and was dubbed the ‘Bible of the anti-globalisation movement’, was a post-operaist reading of Marx. 2007’s The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee effectively became a manifesto for the square occupations, uprisings and riots that started to erupt around the globe. The publication consists of a chaotic mix of anarchistic, insurrectionist and situationist clichés. David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, which was published in 2011, quickly became the definitive book on the financial and debt crisis, but Graeber’s anti-authoritarian and anarchic politicisation of debt contradicts many of the core theories of Marxism. Then came Thomas Piketty’s 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which summarised the effects of recent decades of neoliberal, finance capital-driven politics. However, Piketty’s comprehensive study was predominantly based on leftist, Keynesian theories as well as sociological critiques rather than offering a critique of the economic structure in the vein of Marx. Finally, Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon became a key work in reference to the discussion on the rise of right-wing populism and the suppression of the ‘class question’.