State of counter-power: How understanding neoliberalism’s cultural underpinnings can equip movements to overthrow it

06 February 2014

There is mounting evidence that neoliberal policies are losing legitimacy. The translation of such disaffection into positive commitment to an alternative, however, requires deeper disengagement from the dominant order and practical participation in creating alternatives. A social order built on escaping the pressures of democracy while at the same time depending on the capacities of many desiring democracy is unlikely to be stable. Thus the opaque and indirect forms of power typical of neoliberal rule are simultaneously sources of vulnerability and dependence, and breeding grounds for the power to subvert and transform.

The hymn tells us that ‘God moves in mysterious ways‘. The same is often said about power, as if we must leave it at that. Whatever one thinks about God, power is absolutely not an irresolvable mystery. It‘s true that the powerful exert their power opaquely – secrecy is their first line of protection – and a lot has been done to make neoliberal market power mysterious, indeed to render it invisible. But the relationships and mechanisms of domination at any particular time are historically specific, a product of struggles won and lost, interests formed, entrenched and defended, alternative directions suppressed.

In this essay, therefore, I intend to understand the more opaque workings of power in neoliberal political economies by putting the recent neoliberal ascendancy in a broader historical perspective. Our strategies will miss a vital dimension if we focus only on the blatant direct dimensions of state and corporate power, and ignore the daily relationships through which people are tied into the neoliberal economy.

Consider the threatened closure towards the end of 2013 of Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland by Ineos, one of the world’s largest corporate chemical empires. An understanding of corporate power and its alliance with government explains how the chief executive and main shareholder Jim Ratcliffe was able to impose pay freezes, a no-strike commitment and an end to final salary pensions on a union that initially vowed to resist. Ratcliffe used his own threats of selling off the refinery to force a humiliating climbdown. But some union leaders and activists had hoped for a more militant response – an occupation even – from those who worked in the refinery. The workers, though, acquiesced, relieved to keep their jobs.

This acquiescence to the relentless pursuit of profit, against their own long term interests along with those the local community and the national economy, can only be explained by understanding the popular consciousness shaped by the decades-long experience of the denigration of values of solidarity and the reinforcement of the ‘naturalness’ of the market and the hopelessness of refusing its dictates. These processes are an aspect of power that we cannot afford to neglect.

State of Power 2014 cover
State of Power 2014 State of Counter-power chapter(pdf, 376.17 KB)
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