D. della Porta, Social Movements in Times of Austerity: Chapters 2 and 3

Social Movements in Times of Austerity. Bringing Capitalism Back in Protest Analysis

Donatella della Porta (European University Institute And Scuola Normale Superiore)

Polity Press © Donatella della Porta


Chapter 1: The reemergence of a class cleavage? Social movements in times of austerity

Chapter 2: Social structure: old working class, new precariat, or yet something different?

Chapter 3: Identification processes: class and culture

Chapter 4: La llama democracia y no lo es: a crisis of responsibility

Chapter 5: Democracy is not a spectator sport: changing conceptions of democracy in social movements

Chapter 6: Bringing capitalism back in protest analysis? Some concluding remarks


Chapter 2

Social structure: old working class, new precariat, or yet something different? 

Tunisia. 17 December 2010. The catalyst of the so-called Jasmine revolution was, in the peripheral region of Sidi Bouzid, the suicide of Mohammad Bouazizi, who had set himself on fire in front of the regional office. As Joseph Pugliese (2013, 7) noted, ‘Bouazizi’s incendiary act of revolt in the public street of Sidi Bouzid is tinder to the other citizens ground down by the violent practices of the Tunisian state. His sister, Leila Bouazizi, locates his act of self-immolation within larger relations of state power and violence: “In Sidi Bouzid, those with no connections and no money for bribes are humiliated and insulted and not allowed to live.”’ Bouazizi’s public suicide was so interpreted as an act of revolt against a society in which some members were ‘not allowed to live’. In fact, ‘His self-immolation inflames a citizenry that is ready to revolt: “The fear had begun to melt away and we were a volcano that was going to explode”, says Attia Athmouni, a union leader and official of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party in Sidi Bouzid. “And when Bouazizi burnt himself, we were ready”’ (Pugliese 2013, 7).

            While there had been other cases (for example, in March and August 2011) of young people immolating themselves in front of government buildings, the new victim had relatives in the progressive party and in the unions who promoted a sit-in in front of the regional government headquarters. An activist thus recalled those moments: ‘So on Friday 17 December we gathered in front of the regional government building: hundreds of unionists and activists. We made a sit-in in front of the government building and stopped traffic, until 8 at night. . . . together with the unemployed; and friends of Bouazizi – all throwing oranges and other fruit at the regional government building’ (in Donker 2012). While the police intervened to repress, young people responded in kind (Ayeb 2011).

            Social injustice remained a main frame of the protest. On 22 January 2012, another young person killed himself in Sidi, leaving a note that read: ‘no more misery, no more unemployment’. This fuelled other protests, which became stronger after, on the 24th, two demonstrators were killed by police fire in Menzel Bouzaienne, a small town of 5,000 inhabitants. Social claims were central in the mobilization, as ‘the Tunisian revolution was started not by the middle class or in the northern urban centres, but by marginalised social groups (the southern mining region workers and the unemployed, particularly graduates) from southern regions, which themselves are suffering from economic, social, and political marginalisation. We had to wait till the beginning of January 2011 to see the middle class intervening actively in the revolutionary process’ (Ayeb 2011, 468).

            The Arab Spring has been depicted as a movement for democratization, but it was also – or even mostly – a movement against a specific form of capitalism, neoliberalism, and the suffering it produced. In Tunisia, as in the revolts that followed in 2011 in the MENA region and elsewhere, issues of social justice were central – as was the overwhelming participation of young people, often unemployed or in precarious positions (della Porta 2014a). The political economy of Tunisia, similarly as with the Egyptian one, has been characterized as neoliberalist as the decline of the developmental state had left space to austerity policies which have reduced welfare provisions (in terms of public education, assistance, health, housing, jobs, etc.) while a peripheral location within the global economy was expressed in the specialization on few goods and services with high levels of economic dependency from the core. Here, debt crises strengthen the political dependency from core capitalist states as well as international organizations. Bouazizzi extreme act of protest was challenging indeed the increasing precarity of life in peripheral Tunisia—not only in terms of job insecurity, but also in terms of quickly deteriorating welfare provisions and the repression of claims for social justice. Antineoliberal claims and calls for social justice became more and more audible in the mobilization that followed. A similar development had characterized, since the 1970s, other peripheral areas.

As the protest moved from the MENA regions to Southern Europe, it pointed at the parallel—although delayed—paths at the semi-periphery of Europe, where the financial crises had followed moments of hopes, soon to be disillusioned, in the capacity of free market to solve the structural weaknesses of those national economies. A few months later, as anti-austerity protests spread in the United States, the evidence of the crisis at the core of capitalism became then dramatic. Consumption has been in fact depressed by the excessive concentration of richness in a few hands, as well as by the dynamics of financial fluxes, with the opening of credits to citizens first used as a sort of ‘private Keynesianism’ solution to keep demand and profits high, followed by a (mainly private) debt crisis (Crouch 2010; Pianta 2012). The crisis in 2008 showed all the fragility of supporting consumption thought consumers indebtedness, with the effects of going “from bubble to bubble” (Wallerstein 2010, 137). Some countries (with traditionally weak economies) were indeed much more hit than others. Also in rich states, however, neoliberalism had the effect of exponentially increasing social inequalities, with a very small percentage of winners and, instead, a pauperization of the working class together with a proletarization of the middle class (Stiglitz 2012a). Under neoliberal capitalism, and especially its crisis, “growth is lower than ever, unemployment, on cross-country average, higher, the same holds for inequality, wages continue to stagnate, and social benefits are on a steady decline’ (Streeck 2014, 49). As we are going to see, these trends are reflected in the social basis of the protest.

In what follows, I will first locate today’s movements within a dynamic vision of capitalism, pointing at some important contributions from political economy and economic sociology to social movement studies. Departing from the analyses of the social basis of the protests against neo-liberalism in the periphery at the end of the last millennium, I will then be analysed. I will then proceed by presenting empirical evidence on the social bases mobilized in the global justice movement during the rampant years of neoliberalism as well as in the anti-austerity protests, during its crisis. While, in different ways, World-System theory and theorization of the Empire expect anti-systemic movements to emerge when exploitation and sufferance increase, social movement studies point at the effects of socio-structural conditions on the grievances but also the resources of the different social groups. As we are going to see, protests under neoliberalism tends to increasingly involve precarious youth, but mostly in coalition with other social groups that have lived a sort of precarization.

Dynamics of capitalism

As mentioned in chapter 1, capitalism has not totally disappeared from social movement studies, but rather selectively continued to play a role in some areas of analysis, which remained however rather separate from the mainstream. In this part, I will start reviewing some literatures which addressed the broad shifts in capitalist transformation, as well as its internal diversities. Particular attention will then be paid to some characteristics of the “second great transformation”—that is, to neoliberalism and its crisis, that I suggest has affected social movement development.

Charles Tilly (1978) has influentially linked social movements to capitalist development (and concentration), particularly within the nation state. By focusing decision-making on the national level, the twin processes of state building and capitalism development have attracted protests at that level, contributing to the creation of national social movements. Economic changes so affected political opportunities and the responses to them (Kousis and Tilly 2005). while state formation is influenced by the mode of production , the latter does not automatically translate into institution; rather, “the translation from class structure to state organization occurred through struggle” (Tilly 1990, 100). The organization of work generates contentious issues and conditions for struggle. In fact, under precipitating conditions workers activate shared definition of action, which depend on the context as well as previous experiences. Strike waves then leave behind significant changes in industrial relations, especially for those categories that have constructed a reputation of militancy (Tilly and Tilly 1998, 231).

Historically, national social movements have both been prompted by, and resisted, changes in capitalism, in its continuous move between free market and social protection. Classical works in political economy as well as social history have pointed at the role of collective action by aggrieved groups in promoting social incorporation and resisting de-incorporation (Collier and Collier 2002). As Karl Polanyi influentially noted, analysing the first wave of economic liberalism in what he called the great transformation, ‘For a century the dynamics of modern society was governed by a double-movement. The market expanded continuously but this movement was met by a countermovement checking the expansion in definite directions’ (1957, 130). In the nineteenth century, the turn towards the free market was in full swing, yet ‘simultaneously a countermovement was on foot. This was more than the usual defensive behaviour of a society faced with change: it was a reaction against a dislocation which attacked the fabric of society, and which would have destroyed the very organization of production that market called into being’ (Polanyi 1957, 130). Polanyi described this double movement as produced by:

… the action of two organizing principles in society, each of them setting itself specific institutional aims, having the support of specific social forces and using its own specific methods. The one was the principle of economic liberalism, aiming at the establishment of a self regulated market, relying on the support of the trading classes, and using laissez-faire and free market trade as its methods; the other was the principle of social protection aiming at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization, relying on the varying support of those most immediately affected by the deleterious action of the market – primarily, but not exclusively, the working and the landed classes – and using protective legislation, restrictive associations, and other instruments of intervention as its methods (Polanyi 1957, 132).

The spectacular failures of the free market after the “great transformation” were in fact followed by protective countermovements by the landed and worker classes; the great depression between the two wars then reopened the way for social protection. The pressure of the lower classes for incorporation interacted with the so-called Fordist version of capitalism, in which mass production required mass consumption and a related ethic, as well as relatively high wages and state intervention. While Fordism spread especially after World War II at a time of U.S. hegemonic maturity, by the 1970s a post-Fordist turn had already adapted capitalism to pressures from labour through a progressive dismantling of the state: with a new neoliberal turn, inequalities increased accordingly (Antonio and Bonanno 1996).

While these streams of research addressed the alternation of free market and social protection, looking at these double movements and the return of (neo)liberalism with a view to explaining social movements, one must also consider the internal (cross-national and cross-area) differences within each capitalist turn. In political economy, the social science analyses on world-systems as well as on the diversities of capitalism provide useful specifications in this direction.

In the world-systems perspective, the world is an interdependent system with hierarchical division of labour. Cycles of economic expansion and decline are linked to the cycle of the hegemon’s growth and fall, with each hegemonic state advancing a peculiar accumulation system. Accumulation crises introduce the need to adapt to declining profits. So, neoliberalism is a way to address the crisis of the 1970s, with globalized capitalism that limits the state role to regulation of monetary policy and protection of private poverty. Growth promotion is invoked through international trade, privatization of services, deregulation of business practices, and limits on spending. In this vision, the recent period is marked by frequent crises, as the financialization of capital increases the volatility and vulnerability of the hegemonic order. In Wallerstein’s expectation, in a system far from equilibrium, “small social mobilizations can have very great repercussions” (Wallerstein 2010, 141).

The turn towards neoliberalism happened first in the semi-periphery and in the periphery, where developmental new states had risen during cold war rivalry, with multilateral sponsorship, developmental assistance, and economic incorporation, as ‘developing country governments began to invest in their own economies and regulate them in the interest of planned growth’ (Walton 1998, 466). In that time, the developmental state promoted an ‘interventionist strategy through mechanisms to support the social wage and ensure the general welfare with central planning, social security, health care, workers’ compensation, minimum wage and trade union rights. The developmental state was capitalist and dependent on trade and on aid from western industrial nations, but it also attempted to husband national capital in a set of policies that included import-substitution industrialization, capital and exchange rate controls, industrial protection, and joint investment ventures’ (Walton 1998, 466). In the 1970s , after the debt crisis, the conditionality of structural adjustment programs implied however severe cuts in public budgets with the consequent loss of access to basic services, and major anti-neoliberal policy protest. This happened, among other places, in Latin America, Asia, and the MENA regions, where developmental states were radically dismantled through several waves of shock therapy in the free market. To remain with the Tunisian example, between 1983 and 1992 the IMF had imposed structural adjustments, with privatization and an end to subsidies as well as price controls, plus lowering of trade barriers. These changes produced increasing unemployment, especially of young people.

In the 1980s, the core capitalist states experienced a similar turn towards the free market, even if with different timing in different model of capitalism. Literature on the varieties of capitalism has in fact pointed at the differences between an Anglo-Saxon capitalist model and a European one as located within different models of firms’ coordination (Hall and Soskice 2001). While the Anglo-Saxon model trusted to competitive market arrangements the coordination of economic activities, in co-ordinated capitalist model, in Europe, firms relied more on non market relations to coordinate their activities, with the state policies characterized by income policies, interventionism, and planning.

The neoliberal turn happened first in the variety of capitalism which seemed already more oriented to trust market self-regulation. The United States and Great Britain, led respectively by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, initiated in fact a move toward cuts in the welfare state as justified by an ideology of the free market. As increasing inequalities and the reduction of public intervention risked depressing the demand for goods, low interest rates were used, in a sort of private Keynesianism, to support demands –ultimately fuelling the 2008 financial crisis (Streeck 2014). In fact, in that year, the failure of Lehman Brothers produced such a shock that governments decided to come to the rescue; banks began to introduce this willingness into their calculations. This was followed by increasing government debt.

Face to U.S. and U.K. economic decline, coordinated market economies, e.g. in the EU and Japan, seemed to have equal or even superior competitiveness if compared with liberal market economy (Hall and Soskice 2001; Streeck 2010).[1] Given the failure of Clinton’s plan for reform and the financialization and deregulation of the U.S. economy, co-ordinated capitalism seemed in fact to offer an alternative to the vagaries of the market self-regulation. Besides its diversity, however, that form of capitalism also moved towards the free market and was hit by the recent financial crisis, showing, indeed, some inherent contradictions of democratic capitalism (Streeck 2014).

This could be seen especially in the EU, where the trend towards welfare retrenchment was aggravated, particulalry in the weaker economies, by the EU monetary union which, together with the fiscal crisis, increased inequalities both among and within member states. As Fritz Scharpf (2011) noted, with the abandonment of Keynesian types of intervention, which assigned leading functions to fiscal policies (as governments are supposed to cut taxes and finance expenditures during recession), the monetarist orientation of the EU policies – with the abandonment of full employment as a goal and the dominance of price stability – was responsible fact for the type of crisis which developed in the union.[2] This is all the more the case as the European Central Bank (ECB) is in fact based on monetarist assumptions. After an apparent initial success, ‘the political crash programs, through which unlikely candidate countries had achieved an impressive convergence on the Maastricht criteria, had generally not addressed the underlying structural and institutional differences that had originally caused economic divergences. Once access was achieved, these differences would reassert themselves’ (Scharpf 2011, 173). As the problem of the great recession is mainly a lack of aggregate demand, the crisis in Europe was said to be produced by excessive austerity of the ECB, as ‘given the weakness of the economy… deficit fetishism focuses on the wrong problem’ (Stiglitz 2012a, 237).

The European Monetary Union (EMU) produced particular problems for countries with below-average growth, as interest rates proved too high for their economies, ‘with the consequence that initially weak economic activity was depressed even further by restrictive monetary impulses’ (Scharpf 2011). In fact, states had to find solutions without the use of monetary exchange rate strategies. In the so-called GIIPS (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain), interest rates initially fell to the German level, while the sudden availability of cheap capital-fuelled credit financed domestic demand – with, especially in Ireland and Spain, large investments in housing and consequent price bubbles (Scharpf 2011). On the eve of the crisis, the GIIPS were made particularly vulnerable by severe current-account deficits, dependence on capital inflow, and over-valued real exchange rates. So, in 2007, the monetary union had achieved proximate political purposes, eliminating currency fluctuation and interest rate differentials among member states, but had deprived national representative institutions of their own monetary and exchange rate instruments of macroeconomic intervention (ibid.).

Also in the EU, especially in some member states, neoliberalism was temporarily rescued by the growth of credit markets for the poor and middle-classes, and by the spread of derivatives and futures markets among the rich (Crouch 2012; Scharpf 2011). Privatized Keynesianism developed here as well, facilitated by deregulation of the bank system, as families took on debts, until the system started to implode. The rise of external, mainly private indebtedness was not seen as a problem by EU institutions, as the stability pact did not address private debt or differentiate between debt incurred during growth or recession (in fact, both Spain and Ireland were models of fiscal probity) (Scharpf 2011). Since 2008, some effects of the U.S. crisis were in fact felt in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland, which had allowed their banks to invest in toxic products (differently, for example, from Spain). The effects of the credit squeeze hit then especially those countries whose economies had relied more on cheap credit. As Scharpf noted (2011), although bankruptcy-cum-devaluation could have been an option for some of these countries given the spectre of sovereign default, surplus countries did not support this approach as they feared difficult political conditions, speculative attacks on the Euro, and losses for their banks, while revaluation of the Euro would have damaged export industries (Scharpf 2011).

When the crisis exploded, the governmental reaction in Europe was based on cuts in public expenditures, even in countries (like Ireland or Spain) in which the public deficit was relatively low. While unemployment increased dramatically (up to one quarter of the population in Southern European countries, and more than 50 per cent among young people), the crisis of neoliberalism also meant, at the same time, a reduction in available public resources as well as an increase in the number of citizens who need social service support. Accused of low increases in productivity, social services in public hands see cuts in budgets, along with reductions in social workers’ salaries and positions in the public sector. Additionally, the very function of social services qua public services is challenged. The conception of welfare states moved then towards a residual, charity based one, while the neoliberal credo defines social protection as bad for the economy if paid for by the state: it not only affects the public budget, but is even accused of distorting the functioning of the labour market.[3]

The austerity policies imposed (or justified) in fact a decline in the share of public spending over which officials and legislators have some discretionary power (Streeck and Mertes 2011, 1). On education, research and development, active labour market, and support for families, the decline is especially high in those states that had once invested more in these areas. Short-term and non-standard forms of employment have increased especially since the 1990s (Saraceno 2005), while the ideology of flexibility spread (Gallino 2007). The concept of precariousness indicates the increasing number of (especially young) citizens subject not only to the lack of contractual protection on the labour market, but also their growing difficulty in constructing political subjectivities (Mattoni 2012).

While welfare state under Fordism had represented a decommodification of some goods, defined as public services, neoliberalism brought about the privatization and (re)commodification of once-public goods, as social services are rather considered increasingly as a commodity to be sold on the market (Graefe 2004). This is the case for health care as for education, for the care of children as of the old or the sick. In parallel to privatization of social services for those who can pay, research has indeed singled out a criminalization of the poor. Public spaces are also privatized in order to keep away those who are considered, once again, as dangerous classes. While in principle there is a legal protection from poverty in the name of human rights, these provisions are usually not binding (e.g., art. 30 of the European Social Charter, Council of Europe 2013, 63; see also Gerds 2013). If in principle nobody can be discriminated against because she is experiencing poverty, de facto the privatization of public services implies discrimination from provisions of even basic goods. While the most urgent functions are increasingly allocated to the third sector, this sector is more and more deprived from public support – in material but also in symbolic resources.

The target of the anti-austerity movements, then, is a crisis of neoliberal capitalism which has been addressed through austerity measures. The evolution of the last 30 years or so has also deeply transformed the social structures. Fordism was said to have created a two-thirds society, with new social movements emerging from the pacification of class conflict, and even the embourgeoisement of the working class, with the crisis of the 1970s producing a short but radical wave of protest by the excluded one third. Today’s mobilizations seem instead to reflect the pauperization of the lower classes as well as the proletarianization of the middle classes, with the growth of the excluded in some countries to about two thirds of the population.

In sum, we can draw from political economy research some relevant elements for the analysis of social movements in times of austerity. First of all, capitalism has always been transforming itself, through complex and dynamic interactions among different actors. The pendulum between free market and social protection has been accompanied by waves of economic growth and decline. Second, while some changes are global, their specific characteristics vary in different geopolitical areas and within different varieties of relations between the state and the market.

These brief references to capitalism developments also lead us to some expectations about the structural bases for the grievances around which citizens of various countries are mobilizing. In what follows, we shall look at their effects on the social bases of those who protest, while in all the countries where anti-austerity protests spread–not only in Greece and Spain, but also in Tunisia, Egypt and the US–indeed the indicators of social and territorial inequalities constantly on the rise, the decline of the middle class, the growth of the people defined as poor (see Pianta 2012; Stiglitz 2012a; Therborn 2012; Tezanos 2012).

Social movements and social structures

Which are the expected effects of these evolutions of capitalism on social movements and their bases? In Marxist views, capitalism affected directly the mobilization of the oppressed. As capitalist production tended to reduce the power and value of labour, ‘the increasing precariousness of working and living conditions induces proletarians to form combinations against the bourgeoisie’ (Arrighi et al.1989, 9), with an enduring crisis of capitalism. While this did not happened, research on the labour movement has however addressed in depth the role of socio-economic structures as bases for social conflicts and constraints on their development. Much scholarship has in fact in pointed at the role of the working class in struggling for civic, political, and social rights, which have been incorporated in some conceptions of democracy. According to Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens (1992, 6), ‘one would have to examine the structure of class coalitions as well as the relative power of different classes to understand how the balance of class power would affect the possibilities for democracy’.

Attention to the social bases of conflicts remained present in research and thinking on social movement studies, in either a more structuralist or a more dynamic version. First, world-system theory has predicted the role of anti-systemic movements in the struggle against capitalist exploitation, singling out some success but also some failure. While world-system theory located the anti-systemic movements within global contexts, which had however differentiated effects at the periphery, developing a broad and deep research project, recent theorizations on the ‘empire’ pointed at the global role of emerging multitudes. With more of a focus on the empirical analysis of the social bases of existing movements, some social movement scholars, as mentioned, referred to cleavage theory looking at different stages of post-Fordist societies. After presenting both, starting from more structural views and moving then to more dynamic ones, I would then suggest some potential bridging among them.

World-systems theory and anti-systemic movements

With a clear focus on structure, the world-systems approach expects capitalist crises to, more or less automatically, fuel an (antisystemic) movement. The world-systems perspective aimed at coming to terms with the failure of Marx’ prediction of a revolution emerging from the crisis of capitalism. According to them, the exploitation of the periphery allowed the hegemon to survive: as state protection and mercantilistic policies ‘increasingly transferred world capitalist competition from the realm of relations among enterprises to the realm of relations among the states’ (Arrighi et al. 1989, 12). Especially at the core of the capitalist world-system, extra-profits could be invested in granting some benefits to labour.

Crises however still happened at this time. As the system requires constant economic growth, crisis is the situation in which the restitutive mechanisms of the system no longer function well, so that the system will either be fundamentally transformed or disintegrate. According to world-systems theory, in the ascending phase of an hegemonic cycle, the rising state exploits new sets of opportunities, transforming productive advantages into power in commercial and financial areas (Buechler 2000). Growing economic power is then translated into military dominance. In prosperous periods, class conflict is moderated through reforms. Vice-versa, when a state loses its productive advantage, stagnation ensues, resulting in increasing economic and political inequality, and state repression. As the availability of resources diminishes, the scarce investments are oriented to policies that might strengthen national capitalism into crisis, while expenses for welfare are cut (Buechler 2000). In this context, anti-systemic frames reemerge when a crisis ensures the persistent presence of and growing pressure by anti-hegemonic movements.

While recognizing transnational effects, world system theorists still expect increasing protests as exploitation grows. In their prediction, “When oppression becomes particularly acute, or expectations particularly deceived or the power of the ruling stratum falters, people have rizen up in an almost spontaneous manner to cry a halt” (Arrighi, Hopkins, and Wallerstein 1989, 29). In this approach, resistance to capitalism initially took the form of riots and revolts that rarely made an impact; however, challengers later began to organize in anti-systemic movements. While in the early modern period oppressed peasants did sporadically riot, it was only after 1848 that workers began to create durable organizations and political strategies that represented a ‘great innovation in the technology of rebellion’ (Buechler 2000, 30). These challenges were to become successful after World War II: social democratic ones in core countries, communist ones in the semiperiphery and peripheries, national liberation in the periphery. Even when they took state power, however, these organizations were unable to end inequality, as their regimes continued to ‘function as part of the social division of labour of historical capitalism’ (Wallerstein 2004, 71).

The movement of 1968, then, represented a revolt not only against capitalism, but also against the perceived failure of the old anti-systemic movements (for a synthesis, see Schaeffer and Weyer 2013). At the end of the 1960s, new social movements were in fact prompted by ‘the tremendous widening and deepening of bureaucratic organizations as a result of the previous wave of antisystemic movements’ (Arrighi et al. 1989, 38), and the dissatisfaction with their performance. Direct action was then particularly effective given the highly integrated system of production. This move, however, prompted a new adaptation by capitalism, with centralization of capital in multinational firms, first-world deindustrialization, and third-world industrialization. The debt crisis of large groups of debtor states led them to look for credits at the international level, accepting the cuts in welfare and austerity measures international organizations imposed. Globalization was then also resisted by single-issue, fragmented campaigns that however tended to network into more durable efforts, some of them channelled into IGOs or the development machines in the global South, reproducing western values and patterns of exploitation (Smith and Wiest 2012).

In sum, this vision, the capitalist oppression is expected to results in the revolt of the oppressed, with different dynamics at the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery. While capitalism changed forms, there was not a final crisis, with related end of the current capitalist world system, Walterstein himself expected will happen (Wallerstein 2010). If world-systems theory is influencial in pointing at the differences in space within the global cyclical move from free-market to social protection and back, it does not however focus on how waves of globalization impact on the intensification of relations within and between the various systems of capitalism at the centre, the semi-periphery, and the periphery. This is instead a main aim in the more recent reflections on the novel Empire.

Multitudes against the empire?

The Marxist focus on structural transformation as leading to collective action reemerged in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000) who, in their Empire, single out in the “multitude” the new anti-capitalist subject, which they see as an emerging global opposition. They define globalization as a condition in which ‘the primary factors of production and exchange – money, technology, people and goods – move with increasing ease across national boundaries’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, xi). In this sense, the cause for ‘the declining of the nation-states and their increasing inability to regulate economic and cultural exchanges is in fact one of the primary symptoms of the coming of the empire’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, xii). In their analysis, the empire represents a step forward in the evolution of biopolitical power: it is considered to be a positive development insofar as it puts an end to colonialism and imperialism, but the relations of exploitation it builds are seen as even more brutal than the ones it destroys, with very small minorities in control of enormous wealth, and multitudes living in poverty (Hardt and Negri 2000, 43). Foucault’s biopolitical power is here endowed to international organizations such as the UN or IMF, but even more to huge transnational corporations. Communicative production supports an imperial legitimation based not only on military power but also on moral appeal and juridical intervention. The increasing power of corporations and the mechanism of command of the empire replace those of the state.

A move from national to imperial sovereignty implies, in this view, an opening of frontiers but also the closing of the imperial space (Hardt and Negri 2000, 167, 187). Expanding beyond the factory, capitalist exploitation no longer has a place. This also means, however, that ‘imperial power can no longer discipline the power of the multitude; it can only impose control over their general social and productive capacities’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 211). The fundamental contradiction of capitalist expansion is thus singled out in the reliance on the outside to realize surplus, as this enters in conflict with the need to internalize the noncapitalist environment (Hardt and Negri 2000, 227). In fact, once civilized, the outside is no longer outside. The world market is considered unified through proletarization and migrations, with decolonizing and decentring of production, thus participating in the creation of a disciplinary regime and society. While the hegemonic position of the industrial working class fades away, the proletariat, made up of those exploited by capitalism, increases in number: it ‘imposes limits on capital and not only determines the crisis but also dictates the terms and nature of the transformation. The proletariat actually invents the social and productive forms that capital will be forces to adopt in the future’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 268). The spread of precarity – as a modality of work, but also of life – is a relevant condition in the empire, as ‘The central characteristic of labour that results from the flexibility and mobility imposed on it in biopolitical production is its precarious nature, that is, its lack of guaranteed contracts, stable schedules, and secure employment, in which work time and life time blend together on the tasks and challenges of informal and changing jobs’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 245).

Here as well, the exploitation in the empire would produce rebellion, but in this case of a global character. The proletariat would now include all those exploited by and subject to capitalist domination (Hardt and Negri 2000, 53). In fact, ‘Multitude is thus a concept of applied parallelism, able to grasp the specificity of altermodern struggles, which are characterized by relations of autonomy, equality, and interdependence among vast multiplicities of singularities’ (Hardt and Negri 2009, 111). Precarity, although a capitalist control strategy, inverts the separation of time, eroding the normal division between working and nonworking time (Hardt and Negri 2009, 147). As the factory had been for the industrial workers, the metropolis is now the primary locus of biopower; like the factory, it is a place of exploitation, but also a site of rebellion (Hardt and Negri 2009, 258). Similarly, in John Holloway’s vision (2010), ‘cracking’ capitalism can result either from a conscious opting out or from a forced expulsion from capitalist social relations.

While the theoretical reflection around the emergence of a new oppressed class can push forward the debate on the potential social base for resistance to neoliberalism, the empirical conditions under which the multitudes will rebel are not spelled out. Some indication about how to reintroduce class consciousness as a necessary, and non-automatic, component of class mobilization comes instead if we bridge reflection on structures in a political economy perspective with some main assumptions in social movement studies.

Bridging political economy and social movement studies

Political economy has reflected on several aspects that are important for our understanding of social movements in anti-austerity mobilizations. In particular, it helped in singling out the three mentioned temporalities in capitalism development: first, a long-term temporality refers to general forms of capitalism; second, a middle-term temporality singles out cyclical movements of growth and crisis; third, there is a short-term, contingent temporality within those cyclical shifts. In addition to time, research has also pointed at the spatial dimension of capitalism. As the world-systems approach has pointed out, even though capitalist transformations tend to have a worldwide dimension, their specific characteristics vary in the core, the semi-periphery, and the periphery. Even within those broad areas, capitalism emerges as cross-nationally diverse, as far as the dimensions of both social protection and free market are concerned.

These dynamics and varieties of capitalism have an effect on the social structures, first of all affecting the interests of the main classes, and therefore the social bases of contentious politics, which tended to move from the industrial workers of the labour movements to the new middle classes of the new social movements and, nowadays, cross-class coalitions of the many victims of austerity policies. The world-systems approach noted the development of anti-systemic movements, sometimes successful in challenging capitalism at the core, the semi-periphery, and the periphery. The contemporary capitalist empire had been seen as promoting the rebellion of the multitudes.

While these observations mainly addressed structural characteristics and changes, social movement studies might help to avoid determinism by moving beyond the conception of interest as inherent in a structural position and pointing, instead, at the dynamic way in which structural positions might nurture the development of a social group, which could then become mobilized. In a certain way, we can say that it addresses the marxist question of the transformation of a class in se to a class per se, through a reference to concepts such as grievances, cleavages, and historicity. Bridging these two streams of knowledge could stimulate a reflection, I will develop in the remainder of this chapter, on the transformation of the social basis for progressive movements during the shift from the rampant years to the crisis of neoliberalism.


Modes of production and social cleavages in social movement studies

While the previous analyses focus on the structural characteristics of capitalism as the fundamental condition for the emergence of its opposition, for social movement studies the main concern was with when and how social exploitation was translated into protest. Although rarely concerned with capitalism per se, social movement studies have occasionally looked at the bridging of structures and action. While not a central focus of social movement studies, strains have been considered as important, as ‘protestors generally protest against something and we fail to grasp their meaning if we fail to consider what they protest against’ (Crossley 2002, 188). Even if much research has demonstrated that grievances are not sufficient for collective action to emerge, nevertheless they are important elements in understanding social movements.

With these caveats in mind, social movement scholars looked, at least sporadically, at the social bases of protest. In the classic theorizations on new social movements, the new social formation of late-modern and post-industrial society produced specific conflicts between administrative rationality and the search for meaning (Buechler 2013 for a synthesis). The invasion of private life by market and power imposed an instrumental rationality against which social movements developed a search for autonomy and authenticity. For Alberto Melucci (1996), in particular, movements represented a search for collective identities in social life against the instrumental logics of the administrative system and the weakening of traditional collective identities.

Remaining within the analysis of new social movements, Alain Touraine had looked at class action as the ‘behavior of an actor guided by cultural orientations and set within social relations defined by an unequal connection with the social control of these orientations’ (Touraine 1981, 61). According to him, ‘the sociology of social movements cannot be separated from a representation of society as a system of social forces competing for control of a cultural field’ (Touraine 1981, 30). The way in which each society functions reflects the struggle between two antagonistic actors who fight for control of cultural concerns which, in turn, determine the type of transforming action that a society performs upon itself (Touraine 1977, 95-6). It is in relation to the concept of historicity – defined by the interweaving of a system of knowledge, a type of accumulation, and a cultural model – that different types of societies can be identified, along with the social classes that accompany them. Touraine in fact singled out four types of society, each featuring a distinctive pair of central antagonistic actors: agrarian, mercantile, industrial, and ‘programmed’. A particular trait of the latter is the ‘production of symbolic goods which model or transform our representation of human nature and the external world’ (Touraine 1987, 127; 1985). As the control of information constitutes the principal source of social power, the main conflicts are expected to shift from the workplace to areas such as research and development, the elaboration of information, biomedical and technical sciences, and the mass media.

As mentioned, research on the new social movements pointed in fact at the over-representation in them of some specific social groups. In a society in which the traditional social cleavages were supposedly pacified, specific components of the middle class seemed to take the lead in contentious forms of politics. In particular, ‘The new middle class, according to these analyses, is constituted from sectors of the population that tend to be employed in the service sector: they are highly educated, yet are not comparable with managers or traditional professionals. As a result of their technical and cultural competence and of their economic-functional position, members of the new middle class are more likely to mobilize in conflicts of the new type’ (della Porta and Diani 2006, 55). Protest politics was therefore said to be, like interest group politics, an additional resource for those endowed with rich material and cultural capital, contributing to increase political inequality rather than redressing it.

Besides class, generations also proved a useful concept for identifying the characteristics of the mobilizing basis for social movements. Attention to the social bases of protest was in fact occasionally revived by research on biographical availability (often related with young age) as well as the cultural resources coming from higher levels of education – while results on the class or occupational bases have been less conclusive (for a synthesis, Corrigal-Brown 2013). Especially, the spread of education has been said to increase the role of social movements as agents of change from below, as in fact, ‘Participation in social movements demands some degree of awareness, imagination, moral sensitivity and concern with public issues, with the ability to generalize from personal or local experience. All these are positively correlated with the level of education. The educational revolution which accompanies the spread of capitalism and democracy extends the pool of potential members of social movements’ (Sztompka 1993, 280). In sum, research on social movements and participation identified a life-course effect, with young adults the most prone to protest politics, then a declining trend, but also the effects of (persistent or discontinuous) socialization to protest (Fillieule 2013a, 2013b). However, the effects of indicators of biographical availability (such as age, marriage, parenthood, and occupation) are inconsistent, varying with the type of movement as well as the degree of commitment (Beyerlein and Bergstrand 2013). Moreover, the causal direction of some correlation is unclear – for instance, participation in teaching and other helping professions has been said to increase participation in social movements, but the choice of those occupations may also be a biographical consequence of activism itself (Giugni 2013).

Moving from the expansive phase of neoliberalism to the great recession, empirical research within the cleavage tradition has indeed aimed at singling out the social groups made up of those who are suffering most from the neoliberal economic model and its crisis as a potential base for mobilization.

Sometime after the fading of the debate on new social movements, the concept of cleavage reemerged in social movement studies in order to address the effects of economic and political globalization. In a broad research project, Hanspeter Kriesi and his collaborators (2008; 2012) singled out as a political consequence of (neoliberal) globalization the formation of a cleavage between winners (those who have an exit option) and losers (those with no exit option). With the erosion of protected property rights and increasing cultural diversity, a cultural competition adds up to economic and political ones. In this analysis, the new cleavage singles out the losers and winners of globalization: ‘the likely winners of globalization include entrepreneurs and qualified employees in sectors open to international competition, as well as cosmopolitan citizens. Losers of globalization, by contrast, include entrepreneurs and qualified employees in traditionally protected sectors, all unqualified employees, and citizens who strongly identify themselves with their national community’ (Kriesi et al. 2008, 8).

A cultural and an economic dimension intersect around an integration-demarcation divide, whereby losers oppose and winners support increased global competition. This innovation is seen as being facilitated by the pacification of traditional cleavages around class and religion, high levels of economic development, increasing immigration, and electoral volatility. Initially mobilized on the right, the Weltanschauung of the losers is dominated by a cultural demarcation, often expressed as exclusivist nationalism. While the political space remains two-dimensional, the meaning of the dominant cleavages is expected to be transformed, with the strengthening of conflicts on pro-market versus pro-state issues, and enhanced opposition to cosmopolitan liberalism (Kriesi et al. 2008). The analysis of the positions of the well-educated versus the less educated and of sociocultural specialists versus managers, and versus unskilled workers, shows in particular that if education has liberating effects in terms of tolerance and openness, the less educated tend instead to develop xenophobic cultural positions, as cultural closeness becomes a common denominator for a socially fragmented stratum (Kriesi et al. 2012, 17).

If the mobilization on the right of the losers of globalization seemed a major phenomenon, often with relevant electoral repercussions, in the 2000s the critique of globalization (especially in its neoliberalism form) developed on the left as well, in this case more within contentious politics (della Porta 2007). Social movement studies have however considered at the difficulties of transforming structural conflicts into action—or, we can say, social bases into cleavages. Charles Tilly influentially pointed at the need to add to “category”, as similar structural position, “net-ness”, as the presence of dense ties within a certain population. Much social movement research has indeed looked at mobilizable networks, considering individuals as embedded in personal as well as associational nets. Embeddedness in these networks facilitates recruitment and help maintaining commitment (della Porta and Diani 2006, 117-121). While for the industrial workers, the proximity in the fabric as well as in popular neighbour increased the capacity to mobilize, unemployed or precarious people, the poor and the marginal, even when highly hit by economic crises, are rarely embedded in mobilizable networks. Mobilization processes might therefore be long and complex, as those networks need to be constructed in action.

The question then is, how does it happen that individual and groups characterized by low “cat-net-ness” are mobilized? The anti-austerity protests in the global South, as we will see in the next paragraph, constituted an important part in emerging mobilization processes, that we will see to some extent reflected later on at the core of capitalism. As shown in particular by research on Latin America, while it is true that those who suffered for increasing poverty and inequalities did indeed mobilize, they needed however to overcome several thresholds, those who were on the losing side of neoliberalism slowly building up cross-class coalition.

Anti-austerity protest in the periphery

Some reflections on the relations between changing social structures and protest can be found in research on social movements against austerity in the periphery, especially in Latin America. Reactions to austerity measures in other parts of the world are particularly relevant to keep in mind when analysing protests today. Counterbalancing the tendency in social movement studies to focus on opportunities, even if admitting threats, their analysis brings attention back to the role of structural conditions as producing grievances and then protest. They also suggest that specific characteristics of the capitalist developments, as well as their conjunctural crises, can be expected to play a role that is worth investigating, on the type of actors who are expected to mobilize.

Somehow detached from studies on social movements in the North, works on the Global South have in fact stressed the importance of economic strains in prompting protest. Research on the South has analysed the mobilizations against various waves of austerity policies, paying attention to changing structural conditions. Since the 1980s, social movements in the Global South have emerged as responses to extreme dispossession and poverty produced by neoliberalism (Motta and Nilsen 2011). As mentioned, mobilization reflected specific class relations. While in more advanced capitalist states labour movements had brought about a decline in liberal capitalism after the great depression, national liberation movements had fuelled an expansion of the Westphalian system through the participation of popular classes in national liberation movements, so that anti-colonial nationalism included demands by the subalterns (Wallerstein 1990). This contributed to spread an unstable equilibrium around the developmental project, heralded by the bourgeoisie, with social services selectively provided to the urban working class and urban poor in exchange for quiescence (Walton and Seddon 1994).

The debt crisis of the 1970s and related austerity measures broke the social pact around which developmentalism had developed. Especially since the early 1980s, structural adjustment programs required cuts in services and subsidies. In urban settings, the middle classes also experienced increasing declassing. Access to housing, health services, and education declined as international organizations promoted market strategies, while the state was restructured as a provider of the fundamental services to capital (Chalcraft 2011, 17).

Resistance, which emerged during these transitions to neoliberalism, was carried out not only by labour but also by groups that had been excluded by developmentalist pacts. Since the early 1980s, protest campaigns for democratization developed as SAPs (Structural Adjustment Plans) weakened co-optation and coercion capacities of states. This occurred through two mechanisms: while austerity pushed people to ask for greater popular sovereignty, impoverished states could no longer support clientelism. Not only in Latin America, but also in Africa, astonishing numbers of popular movements grew even in one-party states (Walton 1998).

While popular parties were co-opted, people expressed their outraged by the abrogation of the social pact of developmentalism, now defended by the subalterns (Chalcraft 2011, 37). Anti-World Bank and anti-IMF protests started in the mid-1970s, continuing well into the 2000s, with actions targeting governmental buildings but also banks and international agency offices (for a summary, L. Wood 2013). Compared with the first wave of struggles for incorporation during state-building in the early twentieth century, this new one was characterized by the mobilization of a more plural coalition of collective actors (including identity based ones, while labour focused more on defensive struggles) who were more autonomous from the state and parties, and possessed more decentralized organizational structures (Roberts 2008). Ad-hoc coalitions grew, as protest increases the more the interactions with international financial institutions (IFIs) (Walton and Ragin 1990). Protests involved working class groups, often with other actors – especially public sector employees and students, but also neighbourhood, human rights, indigenous, churches, street vendors, pensioners, and debtor associations, targeting especially national government.

Under neoliberalism, growing popular movements emerged as independent from states (while before they had been channelled by them) and with more of a focus in the forms of protest on collective consumption than on labour. Movements reacted then to the disruption of everyday life. Looking at less developed countries, Paul Almeida and Hank Johnston have singled out some of the grievances neoliberalism (and its crisis) brought about, and around which anti-austerity protests mobilized. In general, ‘the negative conditions typically associated with austerity measures and neoliberal policies are numerous, but a short list must include the following: rising costs of living, cuts in social services, informalization and fragmentation of national economies, ponderous foreign debts, hyperurbanization and, for many workers, low wages, harsh working conditions, and insecure employment in newly privatized enterprises and export processing zones’ (Almeida and Johnston 2006, 3). Neoliberal challenges to previously acquired rights included cuts in urban services such as public transportation, water, electricity, sanitation, public health, housing, and food subsidies. Labour also protested against privatization, joined by women and those who mobilized in rural areas for land, water rights, loans, communal land access, and price supports. Comparing five Central American countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Booth (1991) emphasized the impact of economic deterioration after the agro-export boom of the 1960s as a relevant motivation to mobilize. In fact, ‘The grievances caused by declining income or wealth, catastrophes, and political dissatisfaction among would-be competing elites led to protests against public policies’ (Booth 1991, 36). After some decline of protest following transition in the 1980s and 1990s, perceived threats to everyday life emerged with increases in oil prices and privatization of public services (health, education, public industries).

Research on political protest in the Third World as a response to the debt crisis indicated a link between the number of structural adjustment agreements (especially IMF pressures), dense urban social networks, and protest intensity, mobilizing the urban poor (shantytown dwellers, street vendors, unemployed youth) and working class affected by cuts in services, subsidies, and salaries (Walton and Ragin 1990). Economic dependency weakened states in economic terms as well as in terms of legitimacy. Boswell and Dixon (1990) also noted that dependency had an effect on rebellion, through short- and long-term negative effects in terms of economic inequality and growth. Growth brought about a spread of unions and associations, while dependency gave rise to rebellion by polarizing classes and income, encouraging mild repression and impeding economic growth.

The protests against neoliberal reforms in Latin American can be seen as at the roots of the Global Justice Movements, which developed especially strong in the region at the turn of the millennium. The location of the first World Social Forums in Puerto Alegre in Brasil, as well as the large participation of Latin American activists in them testify for this link. Indeed the Global Justice Movement also grew in Europa, here however in a still expansive phase of neoliberal capitalism. As I am going to show in what follows, presenting some survey data on the European case, the social bases of the protest tended to reflect, to a certain extent, the growing suffering produced by the crisis of neoliberalism.

The social basis of the (European) global justice movement

A debate on the social bases of protests under neoliberalism as moving beyond the new middle classes had developed already in research on the global justice movement (GJM) – which had indeed focused on social issues, denouncing the increasing inequalities (among and within countries) that neoliberalism, then in rampant growth, had brought about. Here, research had pointed at some innovation, but also at continuities with the new social movements of the past.

Social diversity was a much appreciated characteristic of the movement. So, a document produced by the first World Social Forums (WSF) stated: ‘we are … social forces from around the world (that) have gathered here at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. Unions and NGOs, movements and organizations, intellectuals and artists’ (World Social Movements 2002b, par. 1), and ‘women and men, farmers, workers, unemployed, professionals, students, blacks and indigenous peoples, coming from the South and from the North’ (World Social Movements 2002b, par. 3). The social heterogeneity of the movement was stressed indeed over and over again: ‘We are diverse – women and men, adults and youth, indigenous peoples, rural and urban, workers and unemployed, homeless, the elderly, students, migrants, professionals, peoples of every creed, colour and sexual orientation. … The expression of this diversity is our strength and the basis of our unity’ (World Social Movements 2002a, par. 2). Besides its social diversity, the movement also presented itself as multi-generational. According to activists, the movement ‘put together different generations … and this is the great novelty and the great richness because it puts together men and women, who are from 20 to 60 years old, who discuss together against the old leftist parties’ logic that separated the men from the women, the young from the old’ (focus group, cit. in della Porta 2003, 130).

Research on the activists at the European Social Forum (ESF), one of the main initiatives of the movement, in various of its editions (the first in Florence, in 2002; the second in Paris in 2003; the fourth in Athens in 2004), indicated however a social background that was indeed to a certain extent similar to the one identified for new social movements. While the gender ratio was balanced, young cohorts dominated. As Andretta and Sommier (2009, 115) summarized, ‘Those under 25 represent respectively 47.5 per cent in the first ESF, versus 24.5 per cent of the 2003 sample and 29.3 per cent of the 2006 sample. …Those under 40 represent respectively 82.9 per cent, 71 per cent, and 63 per cent.’ In fact, the majority of the interviewed ESF activists were less than 40 years old, which represents less than 40 per cent of the European population overall.

The ESF participants were also characterized by very high educational levels. In sum,

32.5 per cent of participants had a college or university degree at the first ESF, 69.4 per cent at the second, and 80.3 per cent at the fourth. The ratio of technical or professional qualification was stable during the two first forums, at around 15 per cent; but it dropped considerably at the Athens ESF (4.6 per cent of the sample). The high proportion of persons without diplomas (19 per cent) or with only a high school degree (34 per cent) at the first ESF can be easily explained by the particularity of the sample that was composed more than half by students (Andretta and Sommier 2009, 115).

As for the social background, students clearly dominated, while workers were underrepresented. According to the data collected through surveys at various ESF editions,

First, the GJM activists are prevalently students. Despite differences among the different editions – with 54.8 per cent at the first, 23.7 at the second, and 38.3 per cent at the fourth ESF – they are consistently overrepresented in relation to their weight in the European population (only 6.6 per cent). While not of the same proportion, this over-representation is also found for educators, who were represented more than twice as frequently in Athens than in the general European population (7.6 and 3.8 per cent, respectively). In reverse, the working class is remarkably less present among GJM participants. For example, in Paris and Athens, manual workers were only 2.2 per cent (but 22.3 per cent in overall European statistics). The same is true for retired people (6.5 per cent of the sample but 21.5 per cent of the general European population), as would be expected given the age distribution in the ESF population (Andretta and Sommier 2009, 119).

In sum, ‘non-manual workers are clearly over-represented among participants, especially those working for the public or associative sectors’ (Andretta and Sommier 2009, 125). Additionally, social background was higher among the professional activists and tended to became even more selective with increasing degrees of professionalization within the forum from one edition to the next (Table 2.1).


Table 2.1 approx. here


            While farmers and workers’ unions were present at the social forums at various levels, bringing in the claims of their constituencies, research on the World Social Forum (WSF) has confirmed some social selectivity. Although a high 42 per cent of respondents were under 26 years old, WSF participants tended to be white and well-educated (Institute for Research on World-Systems 2006). As many as 70 per cent of respondents were either students (about one-third) or employed in middle class occupations (about 15 per cent as professors or teachers), while fewer than 10 per cent were part of the working class or peasantry and only about 3 per cent were unemployed or retired (Smith et al. 2007).[4] Additionally, the number of young people, although not low in absolute terms, is declining from one edition to the next.

In conclusion, while not exclusively a movement of the new middle class, the GJM still saw an under-representation of those very social groups whose interests the movement aimed to defend.

The social bases of movements in the crisis of neoliberalism

If the industrial workers constituted the ‘empirical base’ of the labour movement and the socio-cultural professions that of the new social movements, which were also somehow overrepresented in the GJM, the anti-austerity protests are said to have brought into the street social groups that are either losing or never achieved social protection in the retrenching welfare state. If Fordism was the capitalist form in which the labour movement developed, and post-Fordism the capitalist form of New Social Movement, neoliberalism and its crisis represent the capitalist environment of today’s anti-austerity protests (della Porta 2013a).

The sociography of the camps

The social basis for the protest seems to be changing, in fact. In particular, empirical research has pointed at the precariat – mainly young unemployed or underemployed – as a main base for the recent mobilizations. Looking at anti-austerity protests, several researchers noted the importance of the emergence of a new generation, characterized by a specific condition in the society. From the Arab Spring to the United States, passing through Europe, a main social component of the protests of 2011 and thereafter have been young, often well-educated, unemployed, or precarious workers. With youth unemployment above 50 per cent in many of the countries where protest was stronger, and a large majority of new workers in unprotected or at best weakly-protected working positions, it is not surprising that young people do indeed represent a large part of those who protest.

In the various campaigns against austerity, the first people to mobilize have been indeed young people between twenty-five and thirty years old, unemployed and underemployed members of the precariat (Benski and Langman 2013). This is the case for the Greek indignados (Sotirakopoulo and Sotiropoulos 2013), but also in the saucepan revolution in Iceland (Juliusson and Helgason 2013) or the J14 protestors occupying Rothschild Boulevard in the Israeli capital, which mobilized especially a so-called B generation that was discriminated against on the labour market (Alimi 2012). In Tunisia, protest was also organized by an unemployed and young people’s defence committee, with cooperation of urban and rural unemployed (Sergi and Vogiatzoglou 2013). In the 2000s, unemployed graduates had already organized frequent street demonstrations and other protest activity. Pioneers of the movement for democracy were former student activists who mobilized on the powerful frame of a right to work. In September 2006 there were daily demonstrations with up to 1,000 participants, followed by a de facto recognition by the authorities of activists as mediators on the labour market (della Porta 2014a).

The situation was similar in Egypt, where young activists especially moved towards more grassroots movement organizations, such as the 6th of April movement, recalling in its name the date of the repressed textile workers’ strike in 2008. Mainly very young, many of the founders had attended the same university: ‘Thus, when talking about the initial mobilizers, those who put out the call for action, we are talking about young, educated, well connected activists’ (Stork 2011, 93).

In Spain, well educated and on the left (especially the more active participants), the indignados tend to be young people out of work, even if qualified and embedded in digital forms of knowledge (Calvo 2013). In fact, here the economic crisis has effects on young people, ‘making them unable to fulfil modern expectations of financial independence, controlling one’s own life, and the ability to lead a life that is self-sustaining, fulfilling, and productive economically, socially and culturally’ (Calvo 2013, 528). Similarly, in the United States, Occupy is presented as a movement of the marginalized, with more and more insecure and low-paid jobs, precarious housing conditions, and few social entitlements, with a particularly strong presence of recent college graduates who have incurred high debts because of the loans taken to finance education (Langman 2013; Gitlin 2012). A Guardian journalist wrote in fact of a defiant new generation, with no money, no future, and huge debts: ‘Most, I found, were of working class or otherwise modest backgrounds, kids who did exactly what they were told they should, studied, got into college, and now are not just being punished for this, but humiliated – faced with a life of being treated as deadbeats, moral reprobates’ (cit. in Graeber 2012, 68).

The precarious youth are however met in the streets by other social groups, especially among those most hit by austerity policies. In fact, anti-austerity protests mobilized coalitions of different groups: young, middle class, members of new classes of cultural workers, unemployed (Benski et al. 2013). Precarious workers often allied with members of the small bourgeoisie and the middle classes, in situations of imminent proletarianization, with a common experience of suffered injustice and felt outrage.

The building of cross-class coalitions has been considered as particularly relevant in the period leading to the Arab Spring. As Jack Goldstone (2011, 460) summarized, in Egypt and Tunisia, ‘a broad cross-class and cross-regional coalition was vital to overthrowing the regime. Islamists and secularists, residents of the capital city and rural towns; workers, students, teachers, lawyers; and defecting soldiers, all contributed to the revolutionary effort.’ In particular, ‘the unions’ role in the Tunisian revolution was paramount. The intermediary grades of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) managed to launch the movement, articulating the economic demands of workers and the lower middle class as well as the political demands for democracy of the middle classes and the younger generations’ (Khosrokhavar 2012, 216). As reforms pushed for by the World Bank had increased unemployment, protest by the unemployed but also by employed or precarious workers multiplied. Young unemployed coordinated via informal friendship networks, unionists through pre-existing militant networks (Mersal 2011). Protests also mobilized unorganized under-proletariat and youth. Resistance came in fact from the subaltern classes, such as street vendors or unemployed, who called at the same time for integration in a consumption society, but also for freedom. As a Tunisian poet wrote: ‘It is the unemployed and the vagabonds, the beggars and the hobos, it is the barefoot, the sons of the scarred women, it is the street vendors, who made the revolution’ (in Calvo 2013, 232).

In Egypt as in Tunisia, labour protests followed each neoliberal turn in the government’s policies. Workers entered very early in the struggle for democracy, as the longest and strongest wave of strikes since the end of World War II started in 2006 and continued well after the end of the Mubarak regime (Bishara 2013). Even if accused of advancing narrow demands, workers constituted important actors in political mobilization, often targeting governing agencies as well as introducing new forms of action. Thus, former labour leaders defected from the official trade union, founding independent unions, while rank-and-file workers, who maintained their membership in the official unions, also engaged in protest. As Beinin (2011, 181) observed,

Egyptian workers have not received the message that class struggle is unfashionable … Supported by intellectuals and pro-labour NGOs such as the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) and the coordinating Committee for Trade Union and Workers Rights and Liberties, workers mobilized in response to the privatization, throughout the 1990s, of 190 firms. In the second half of the 1990s, food prices increased, salaries dropped, and a sharp increase in inequality was also met by protests: between 1998 and 2003, workers’ protests grew from an average of 25 in the previous ten years, to an average of 118, increasing to 265 in 2004 and 614 in 2007.

Indeed, protests exploded especially after, in 2004, a new government with several Western-educated ministers prompted a new wave of strikes during the privatization of what workers considered as their own firms. Labour and hunger strikes sometimes even won concessions (as in July 2006, after three days of work stoppage). Some of these events developed more politically, targeting the government and its neoliberal policies, as was the case on 6 April 2008 with the repression of the textile workers’ strike in Mahalla, a large industrial town in the Delta. The continuous strength of labour conflicts is testified for by demonstrations of tens of thousands on Labour Day 2010, with the support of the 6th of April coalition and youth groups (Mackell 2012). Labour protests were also very visible all through the uprisings, with three days of general strikes starting on 8 February.

What activists as well as observers stressed the most, however, was the extraordinary social diversity in the protestors’ backgrounds. The New York Times wrote that ‘Friday’s protest was the largest and most different yet, including young and old, women with Louis Vuitton bags and men in galabeyas, factory workers and film stars. . . . The protestors came from every social class’ (cit. in Alexander 2011, 9). Similarly, Al Jazeera noted that, in the street, there were ‘not the 50 or 60 activists that we have been seeing protesting in Egypt for the past five or six years’, but rather ‘normal Egyptians, older women, younger men, even children’ – there were, indeed, ‘children, the elderly, the ultra-pious and the slickest cosmopolitans, workers, farmers, professional, intellectuals, artists, long-time activists, complete neophytes to political protest, and representatives of all political persuasion’ (in Alexander 2011, 10).

Also later on in Europe and the United States, different social groups cohaleshed in antiausterity protests. The so called movements of 2010+ mobilized in fact a new age cohort of activists (Biekart and Fowler 2013), with the growing educated unemployment in combination with impoverished middle classes (working poor). Research based on surveys indicated that in Greece, as Spain, opposition to austerity policies as well as protest potential (that is, belief that people should protest) increased with worsening of personal financial situation as well as worsening of economic expectations, especially if combined with vote for a left-wing party (at the Left of Pasok) and belief in the effectiveness of participating on demonstrations (Ruedig and Karyotis 2013, 16). Previous involvement in protest is higher for younger, male, well-educated citizens working in the public sector, members of unions and other associations, with left-wing orientations (Ruedig and Karyotis 2013, 18). However, protest in 2010 was indeed not a middle-class phenomenon, but a mass phenomenon in which people with varying educational backgrounds and from different generations took part (Ruedig and Karyotis 2013, 22). In fact, 30 per cent of Greeks who took part in protest were, although mainly coming from the Left, otherwise representative of different social and generational backgrounds, so that ‘anti-austerity protest in Greece constitutes a mass movement’ (Ruedig and Karyotis 2013, 23).

Coalitions were formed in particular by workers and users of public services. Social workers and welfare users have been at the forefront, often with common mobilizations in defence of public health or public education. Welfare provisions are in fact core claims of those who protest against privatization of services and commodification of rights, proposing instead a vision of common goods to be defended and controlled by the community. As the crisis of late neoliberalism affects social work in several respects, social workers and users of social services respond through various forms of contentious politics, which at the same time react to and are affected by that crisis. If the workers in social professions had been considered as the main social bases of new social movements in the past, in the protest against austerity social workers have been overwhelming present, both as individuals and in organized groups.

Several protests also addressed the increasing sufferance of, and disrespect for, the victims of the crisis and of the austerity policies. These were often collective actions by citizens, resisting their categorization as users or consumers. In many such protests, legitimacy comes from the participation of the affected – for example, los Affectados para la Hypotheca in Spain. While much action in favour of the so-called weak people had in the past been carried out in their name, a strong tendency in recent protests has been their direct participation: of homeless and SLA patients, to mention just two main examples. Groups of homeless, disabled, migrants, or unemployed stress the importance of the participation of the affected, rather than by sympathetic advocacy. While large NGOs have sometimes been criticized for their vertical organization and single-issue approach, as well as the internal competition in the sector for declining public financing (e.g. Council of Europe 2013, 105), emerging social movements have called for a participatory and horizontal networking logic (Council of Europe 2013, 107; also Berg-Schlosser 2013).

Similar to these are protests of workers and users against the measures of so-called rationalization, with the closing of hospitals, kindergartens, unemployment offices, and other centres for the provision of social services. Increases in the costs citizens have to pay for services, and cuts in the salary and personnel of those services, have sometimes been targeted in broader campaigns on public schools or public health. Voluntary associations also became to a certain extent indignant vis-à-vis the increased responsibility downloaded on their field of action, with a simultaneous decline in public support, at the material and symbolic levels. Associations of victims of house evictions, as well as associations of people affected by serious disease have been central in calling for a definition of services as rights rather than commodities.

Some cross-national differences emerge in the mentioned cross-class coalitions. The trade unions mobilized the proletarized public employees or industrial workers who, in Tunisia and Egypt, participated in the mass protests that eventually tore the regimes down. This was only occasionally the case in Greece, where general strikes converged in the occupied Syntagma (Sergi and Vogiatzoglou 2013), or in Portugal (Baumgarten 2013), where the struggles of the precarious workers sometimes met with those of unions. Efforts remained however parallel, with even fewer occasions for encounters, in Spain or, even more rarely, in the United States. Especially in the latter, ethnic and racial cleavages were still divisive, and the Occupy movement had difficulty connecting to the struggles of the Chinese population in Chinatown in New York City or to those of the native Indians (Barker 2012). These difficulties have been also linked to the presence of different logics of personalized versus communitarian organizing – the former dominating in Occupy, the latter among people of colour and workers (Juris et al. 2012).

The social basis of protest in Europe

In Europe, in general, the survey data collected by social movement scholars working within the ‘Contextualizing contestation’ project on marches organized by left-wing social movement organizations, allows to analyse the sociographic background of participants in antiausterity protests as well as in other types of protests during the austerity periods, comparing them by countries as well as by types of demonstrations.

In all the covered countries, various age cohorts protested during the crisis: if about one third of the protestors we surveyed were born up to 1956, about the same proportion was born after 1976. In the countries where austerity hit harder – Italy and Spain – younger people took to the streets more often. The generations born before and in 1956 were more often surveyed in the Czech Republic, Belgium, and the Netherlands; the younger cohorts more often in Italy and Sweden (see Figure 2.1).


Figure 2.1. approx. here

Data on protestors at various demonstrations in Italy between 2011 and 2013 give us some more information about those who mobilize in different types of movement s in times of austerity, as well as on the specific characteristics of those who protest against austerity policies – as is the case for the three demonstrations on labour issues, the No Monti day and the Florence 10+10 protest on the anniversary of the first European social forum.

First, we notice that 35 per cent of protestors were born after 1977, and therefore up to about 35 years old at the time of the survey, among which 15 per cent were born in 1987 and after. The remaining participants were distributed as 26 per cent in the age cohort of those born up to 1956, 22 per cent born between 1957 and 1966, and 15 per cent between 1967 to 1976. In this sense, we can talk of a high presence of young people in anti-austerity protests, even if other age groups are present as well. The younger cohort is however more present in protests that do not directly address austerity issues, such as the gay pride movement in Bologna in 2012 (67 per cent born after 1976), the No Muos protest in Sicily (54 per cent born after 1976), and the anti-mafia national demonstration in 2013 (45 per cent born after 1976) (see Figure 2.2). In general, this indicates that a precarious condition, as is related with this age group, does not reduce the propensity to protest in general, but that this group protests less in events against austerity issues and more on gender, environmental, and anti-mafia issues. There is, however, a variation to be noted in the protests on labour issues as well, with Euromayday, which explicitely targets precarity, bringing in many of the youngest cohorts (65 per cent below 35 years old), the Labour Day in Florence the most senior cohorts (86 per cent born before 1967), and the general strike located in between. In general, it seems that the very precarity of their position on the labour market jeopardizes the participation of young people in mobilizations that are organized on the typical claims of the labour movements.

Remaining with the data on Italy, education is generally high, although somewhat lower for demonstrations on austerity issues (see Figure 2.3). While all demonstrators attended beyond primary school, a low 10 per cent of participants at labour protests have only a lower secondary education. Those with lower levels of education were more frequently represented among the Labour Day marchers in Florence (21 per cent up to lower secondary) – while the opposite is true for the Euromayday paraders, who are much younger but only in 6 per cent of the cases below lower secondary and as many as 17 per cent with post-doctoral studies. The difference between demonstrations is limited, however, as the low value of the correlation coefficient between education and demonstration indicates. At all demonstrations, the most represented group is the one with the second stage of tertiary education (about 30 per cent).

Figure 2.2 and Figure 2.3 approx. here

From the point of view of class position, protests, although varying, tend to see the presence of lower rather than higher strata. If we look at the whole sample, almost one third defines themselves as upper middle class, but over 40 per cent as lower middle class, and about one fifth as workers. Subjective class location varies by country. The upper middle class were especially highly represented in Switzerland and the Netherlands; lower middle class was a very widespread self-definition in Italy and the Czech Republic; and working class overwhelmingly in Spain (with over 60 per cent) (see Figure 2.4). So, self identification in lower class positions is higher in those countries where the crisis hits harder.


Figure 2.4 approx. here


            In the Italian case, in terms of subjective class allocation (Figure 2.5), while one out of 5 protestors self-locates in the working class (somewhat more for labour protests, with the exception of the Euromayday where working class self-collocation is rare and there is instead a high presence of lower class location), reaching about one out of 4 if we add lower class self-definition, a majority define themselves as lower-middle-class. Many, especially in demonstrations where young people are particularly present, refute class self-definition altogether, as a precarious position seems to jeopardize even this form of identification. From the point of view of self class location, rather than a middle-class or a working-class dominance (even if the latter is more present in anti-austerity protests), we can therefore speak of a prevalence of those who feel part of the small bourgeoisie.

Figure 2.5 approx. here


            As for job position (see Figure 2.6), on the covered European countries less than 40 per cent of protestors in total are employed full time, about one quarter are part-time or self employed, and almost 15 per cent each students and retired people. Only 5 per cent declare being unemployed. The distribution by country is quite homogeneous, with full time workers however more present in the sample in Spain and Belgium, but much less in Switzerland, where part time workers are more present along with self-employed (the latter much less present in Belgium and Spain). Significantly, the unemployed are more present among Spanish protestors, as well as in Italy, where the crisis is most felt, as well as in the United Kingdom.


Table 2.6 approx. here


            The presence of ‘globalization losers’ is confirmed in Italy when looking at employment conditions ofmarchers, as full time employed reach about half of protestors only in anti-austerity protests (but not in the Euromayday where full time workers are less than average, and part-timers more than average), remaining well below in the others (Figure 2.7). Hit by cuts in spending for public education and with a perspective or actual experience of precarious job positions, students are overrepresented by far, comprising 14 per cent of protestors (but up to half for the LGTBQ pride and the anti-mafia protest). Also very present at demonstrations are members of another category of losers of austerity policies: retired people (13 per cent of participants), who have seen their pension reduced and suffer most from cuts in public services (especially in public health). While the presence of students and retired people varies by demonstrations (but not so much between anti-austerity and other protests), the unemployed plus part-time employed reach about one fourth of the participants.

Figure 2.7 approx. here



Bringing capitalism back into the analysis is an important move if we want to understand changes in the social bases of protest and movements. Political and social theorists have speculated on the effects of the emerging social structures on social conflicts, broadly diverging in their predictions. Empirical research has also provided initial evidence on the emergence of new conflicts, here as well without yet reaching conclusive knowledge on a very dynamic situation.

In this chapter, I have suggested to look at capitalism in a dynamic way, distinguishing three temporalities: a long-term one signalling the transformations of forms of capitalism; a middle term one singling out moments of growth and crisis; and a short term, contingent one. In addition to time, the spatial dimension of capitalism is also important, since – as the world-systems approach has pointed out – while capitalist transformations tend to have a global dimension, their timing and characteristics change in the core, semi-periphery, and periphery, as well as in different varieties of capitalism. These dynamics of capitalism have an effect on the social bases of protest, which in the long term moved from the industrial workers for labour movements to the new middle classes for new social movements, but now involving cross-class coalitions of the many victims of austerity policies. As we noticed, antiausterity protests developed first at the periphery, moving then to the semi-periphery and, finally, at the core of capitalism. In Latin America, as in the MENA region, neoliberal turns have increased inequalities, with dramatic effects on large parts of the population. In the US, similar effects in terms of increasing poverty have been noted. In Europe, while the strongest forms of coordinated capitalism have shown some resilience to the crisis, movements developed especially in the European periphery where the financial crisis of the late years 2000s hit particularly those historically weak economies which had already shown difficulties in adapting to the European Monetary Union.

Concluding, in order to understand the development of social movements in general and anti-austerity protests in particular, we need to consider the dynamics of capitalism, both in terms of the long-term capitalist model and short-term contingency. Referring to Polanyi’s double movement, we can state that the anti-austerity movements face the prevalence of free market over social protection in the form of neoliberalism. As in the first movement towards the free market, there is a main focus on liberalization, deregulation, and private property; more specific is instead the financial dominance (versus the commercial one) with attention to shareholders rather than consumers, as well as the development of huge, transnational corporations.

Moreover, looking at more short term waves, we have to locate protest within the crisis of neoliberalism, with the attempt to increase demand for goods and services through private debt rather than public investments, and then the growing public debts, also linked to the bailing out of banks. In the particular case of the EU, the European Monetary Union had disadvantaged the weak economies with exchange rates that were more profitable for the stronger ones (drugging them with low interest rates), as well as depriving them of the power to devalue the national currencies, which had been an important instrument of economic politics in the past.

Especially, but not only, in the weaker economies, neoliberalism and its crisis brought about increasing social inequalities, as well as the precarization of life conditions. Extremely high rates of youth unemployment have been accompanied by new types of labour contracts with very low rate of protection for workers. The closing of factories have summed to youth unemployment the unemployment of those once inserted in the protected labour market. Precarization (and often cuts in revenues) even affected the once protected public sector, as well as retired people. If in the 1960s and 1970s, the peak of Fordism was said to have produced the embourgoisement of the working class and a larger and larger middle class, neoliberalism and its crisis instead brought about a proletarization of the middle classes, as well as general impoverishment.

Two specific concepts that have been introduced into the debate by scholars particularly interested in political economy – but which are seldom referred to in social movement studies – are the (anti free-market) countermovement, as put forward by Polanyi (1957), and the anti-systemic movement, in the world-systems tradition. While anti-systemic movements are expected to fight for a radical alternative to capitalism, countermovements similar to Polanyi’s are more likely to be backward looking, aiming at re-establishing previously existing compromises between free market and social protection. In both traditions, however, the expectation is that those actors whose interests are most affected by capitalism’s forms and twists will rebel. Also in recent theorizations on an emerging empire, a link is expected between the specific social structures produced by capitalist development and the mobilization of precarious, mobile multitudes. This seems paralleled by observations on the mobilization by the losers of capitalist globalization, focusing in particular on their exclusivist tendency (Kriesi et al. 2012).

If, with different characteristics, these approaches remind us of the ways in which social conditions affect the willingness to mobilize against socioeconomic settings considered as negative for specific interests, literature on social movements has stressed the complexity of the mobilization process. Some social groups are easier to mobilize, as they are endowed with symbolic and/or material resources, that are however more likely to be found among ‘winners’ than among ‘losers’. Research on the labour movements of the past as well as on recent campaigns against neoliberalism in Latin America has shown that exploited and marginalized groups also mobilize against their conditions, but that building the necessary resources is a long and complex process. In balance, social movement studies would therefore expect participation in protests not by the most affected, but by coalitions of different social groups that have grievances on which to mobilize as well as resources that support mobilization. Research on the Global South has pointed indeed at the mobilization of coalitions of public sectors employees as well as workers in the declining industries, of young unemployed, women expelled from the labour marker, retired people who see their life quality worsening face to cut in pensions and in welfare services.

Focusing the analysis on two moments in neoliberal development, I have considered the question of the relations between (capitalist) social structures and mobilized social groups by presenting some data on the sociographic characteristics of participants in the global justice movement and anti-austerity protests, as two moments in the development of neoliberal capitalism. Following the more structuralist approach, we might expect an increase in those directly affected by the crisis, moving from the former to the latter. Considering the need of resources for participation, however, we might also expect not the total losers, but rather those with grievances, but also specific social and symbolic capital, to mobilize yhe most. These expectations were indeed, by and large, met in our analysis.

Although stressing social heterogeneity, the global justice movement was still characterized by a large presence of the well-educated middle classes, even if this had not been the case for participants in anti-neoliberal movements in the periphery. Later on, the traditional bases of the class cleavage – the workers, especially of the industrial sector – are certainly mobilized in the anti-austerity protests. They are, however, not dominant, and they are often part of (sort of) multiclass coalitions, including a large component of people outside of the protected labour market. According to surveys at demonstrations, young unemployed or precarious workers, with high educational levels, are also very present in the protests–less so however in those on labour issues and they are not alone. They locate themselves on the lower side of the class hierarchy, losers for sure, precsrious in a broad sense and, to a certain extent, multitudes–even if a main empirical base for a new cleavage did not yet clearly emerge.

If new social movements have been said to react to the pacification of the class cleavage through the development of welfare states, protests against neoliberal capitalism bring instead the language of class back in. In addition, while social movements were said to represent the form of mobilization of new middle classes, reacting to the penetration of the state into the lifeworld, the anti-austerity protests have involved those ‘affected’ by cuts in public spending and reduced social protection. If new social movements were located in a ‘two thirds society’ of broad even if selective inclusion, characterized by the broadening of protection, nowadays they seem to react – from the Arab Spring to Occupy – to the weakening of the once-protected into a one-third society, with large exclusion.

Rather than the emergence of a social class of precariat of young and well educated but unemployed and underemployed citizens, what we have seen as a social effect of neoliberalism in terms of the bases for protest is a precarization of various positions, with broad cross-generational and cross-class mobilization. This type of mobilization bridges together not only those who were traditionally considered as losers of globalization, but also “new losers”—or at least, with this self-perception. Young people with high education—considered in previous analysis as “winners” of globalization, given their high mobility and competitiveness—self identify with the lower classes, as they perceive their present and future as unsecure. Retired people– sometimes said to be able to enjoy declining prizes thanks to fix revenues—define instead themselves as losers, face to cut in pensions, but also in all those social services (such as those in the health system) that are particularly needed by the elders. With them, there are the once highly protected workers in large factories or the public sectors, whose conditions also emerge as less and less secure face to draconian financial measures and reduction of state intervention oriented to provision of public services and support to strategic production. In sum, protestors do not belong only to a specific precarious class, but are rather moved by a plural alliance of citizens whose existence is made less and less secure in neoliberalism and, particularly, in its crisis.

This indeed represented a shift – not only vis-à-vis the new social movements of the 1980s and 1990s, but also vis-à-vis the global justice movement of the beginning of the millennium. While the global justice movement, at least in the global North, had mobilized in solidarity with the excluded and the poor, denouncing increasing territorial and social inequalities, the social basis of the movement was still skewed towards the highly educated, cosmopolitan members of the new middle classes. Notwithstanding the emphasis on plurality of background, and actual cross-generational participation, together with students, members of the social work professions were over-represented. This changed in the anti-austerity protests, which brought into the streets (and squares) coalitions of those who perceived themselves as the losers of neoliberalism. As in the anti-debt protests in the global periphery, those affected by austerity policies became indeed a large component of those who protested. Especially at the periphery, the degree of impoverishment seems to have been reflected in the large participation of the downtrodden and marginalized social groups; in the semi-periphery, precarized workers and middle classes were more visible; at the core of (disorganized) capitalism, the social bases of the movement seemed more focused on impoverished middle classes (especially indebted former students).

Looking ar diversity of capitalism – beyond the two main capitalist varieties suggested by Hall and Soskice (2001) – can be helpful to explain the dis-homogeneous national spread of the protests. Everywhere, it was especially ‘disorganized’ capitalism that was targeted – while protests were more limited where the state had kept more control over the market. However, with time, there was a spreading of the neoliberal version, although with some embeddedness, even on the European continent (Bohle and Greskovits 2012). First protests happened in the periphery, among which in Latin America and the MENA region, where developmental pacts had fallen victim to neoliberal doctrine and international conditionalities, but also in the semi-periphery (like in Greece and Spain) and even at the core of capitalism (in the United States).

In sum, the crisis of neoliberalism was reflected in the development of coalition of various social groups that felt particularly hit by austerity policies. These included emerging precarious youth, especially with high levels of education, but also previously protected groups—including blue collars in the big factories, white collars in the public sectors and retired people—that felt less and less secure about their job and life chances.

While I have mainly stressed similarities in trends of mobilization, a more systematic cross-national comparative analysis will be however required in order to understand the differences linked to dimensions such as the location at the core, the semi-periphery or the periphery of the world capitalist system; the effects of varieties of capitalism, also in terms of organization of interests and degree of social inequalities; the incidence of the extent and forms of the economic crisis. At the meso level, one should also investigate the specific effects of the neoliberal crisis on the capacity for mobilization of social movement organizations representing different social groups—e.g. of the various precarious types of precarious workers. At the micro-level, moreover, it will be useful to control to which extent individual perceptions of class belonging, grievances, life chances have an impact on the mobilization of various groups.

Chapter 3

Identification processes: class and culture

ROMA – November 2012. Members of the Comitato 16 Novembre (November 16th Committee), made up of citizens affected by very serious and degenerative pathologies, protest against the decision of the so-called Italian technical government, led by Mario Monti and supported by the main centre-left and centre-right parties, Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) and PdL (Partito della Libertà, Freedom Party), to cancel special funds for those people who need 24 hour per day assistance. As many as 70 very seriously disabled people, including those affected by lateral amyotrophic sclerosis, enter with their relatives in hunger strike and stage sit-ins in front of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. One of them demonstratively takes away the medical machines he needs to use in order to survive, while the group threatens ‘extreme and sensational’ action. After six days the protest is interrupted as the government agrees to meet the representatives of the committee. But only to inform them – the minister of social affairs crying in front of the journalists – that unfortunately no money has been made available in the governmental spending review: ‘in front of the crisis and the necessity to square the budget, there is nothing to do’ (Repubblica, 5/11/2012). Against what it considers an extreme cruelty, the Comitato 16 Novembre so reacts: ‘If you do not respond to our appeal, you will be responsible for what will happen. We do not want charity; we want our rights.’ The conflict lasted well into 2013, peaking with the death of one of the protestors, after he had removed some of the medical machines that kept him alive.

This protest event – similar to others in Spain, Greece, and elsewhere testifies of the degree to which austerity measures are attacking widespread conceptions of humanity, as well as of the dramatic reactions to them. It tells much about the cultural climate in which new identities emerge in times of crisis and, as we will see, anti-austerity protestors stress their ethical reasons, although bridging a moral framing with a political one.

In this frame, I will look in particular at identity building. Given a certain socio-structural basis, a step towards the creation of a cleavage is an identification process, with the acquisition of some specific norms and worldviews. Regarding the class cleavage, Rokkan in fact noted that ‘conflicts between owners and employers have always contained elements of economic bargaining but they have also strong elements of cultural opposition and ideological insulation’ (1999, 286). In general, he observed that ‘conflicts in the labour market proved much more uniformly divisive’ than those linked to other cleavages. Indeed, in research on the labour movement, much attention was paid to how the special concentration of living and working activities facilitated the development of common world-views, as well as the later challenges to ‘class consciousness’ deriving from the progressive integration of (at least some of) the workers into regulated job positions and the welfare state. New social movement theorists looked then at the emergence of new types of identities, based more on believes than on structural positions.

In what follows, I will first introduce some reflections on collective identities in today’s society and then assess the nature and extent of the challenge that the actual crisis of neoliberalism presents for the recognition of citizens’ rights and for the society in general. Moving from Karl Polanyi’s (1957) work on the first wave of economic liberalism, I will suggest that in the neoliberal wave as well, the challenge is not only material but also normative. Neoliberalism, as fanatical defence of the free market, is for the activists an immoral economy. Looking at the recent wave of resistance to the conceptions and practices of neoliberalism, I will focus on the development of a counter-frame to the one of immorality of capitalism as, in the definition of the self, the citizens are indignant in their defence of their dignity. In addressing identification processes, as in the previous chapters, I will in particular compare two waves of protests against neoliberalism: the global justice movement, in its rampant years, and the anti-austerity protests, during its crisis.

Admitting the difficulties of constructing collective identities face to increasing insecurity, social theory and empirical research point however also at the potential for the construction of new definitions of the people as well as new critique of capitalism. Following social movement studies, this development can be located within a process, involving changes but also continuities via-a-vis previous movement frames.

Immoral (neo)liberalism: The challenge

Austerity means cuts in welfare, social services, salaries of social workers – but it also implies the spreading of an ideology, which deeply affects the very idea of social protection. The development of an “immoral capitalism” has been indeed a main interpretative narrative in both waves of liberalism,

As Karl Polanyi (1957) observed long ago, the history of capitalism is indeed characterized by a double movement between free market and social protection. Many of the characteristics of the first wave of liberalism that he analysed in his influential The Great Transformation hold true, with small transformations, for the neoliberal wave.

In Polanyi’s view, the justification of liberalism through cynical frames of the dominance of the market over the social. Free market moves are assimilated to enclosures, as revolutions of the rich against the poor. With enclosures of formerly common land, ‘the lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. … They were literally robbing the poor of their share of the common’ (Polanyi 1957, 35). Similarly, the liberal turn implied a withdrawal of laws and regulations which were meant to assure a modicum of social protection, bringing about also a normative turn, or at least an attempt to impose new values. Liberals shared ‘a belief in spontaneous progress’ that denied the role of government in economic life. So, ‘market economy implies a self-regulating system of markets… it is economy directed by market prices, and nothing but market prices’ (Polanyi 1957, 43). Imagining that individuals are moved on the market by economic rather than social concerns, free-market economists assumed that ‘human beings behave in such a way as to achieve maximum monetary gains’ (Polanyi 1957, 68). In this sense, ‘self-regulation implies that all production is for sale on the market and that all incomes derive from such sale’ (Polanyi 1957, 69). While mercantilism, even if promoting the commercialization of goods, had been opposed to commercializing land and labour, liberalism considered both as commodities, and therefore to be sold on the market. By subordinating ‘the substance of society itself to the laws of the market’ (Polanyi 1957, 71), human society became ‘an accessory of the economic system’ (Polanyi 1957, 75).

For the great transformation to take place, a paradigmatic shift away from existing laws and norms was needed. In England, since the sixteenth century the poor law and the statute of artifice (with yearly wage assessment by public officers, seven years’ apprenticeship and so on) defined ‘a national organization of labour based on the principles of regulation and paternalism’ (Polanyi 1957, 87). Until the end of the eighteenth century, the Speenhamland law stated that a minimum income had to be assured, for example as subsidies in addition to salaries and proportional to the cost of bread. Initially, even laissez-faire doctrine, although fighting against regulations on production, considered the poor law as a help to manufacturers, permitting them to divest themselves from responsibility towards dismissed employees (Polanyi 1957, 137). In contrast, the reform bill of 1832 and poor law amendment of 1834 abolished subsidies – which were accused of reducing productivity – signalling the end of benevolent paternalism.

This represented what some scholars conceptualized as a move toward amoral capitalism. Polanyi talked, in particular, of a moral degradation–as ‘if workers were physically dehumanized, the owning classes were morally degraded. The traditional unity of a Christian society was giving place to a denial of responsibility on the part of the well-to-do for the conditions of their fellows’ (Polanyi 1957, 102). Amoralism was justified by the assumption that progress was linked to pauperism: as, according to liberal thinker Jeremy Bentham, ‘in the highest stage of social prosperity, the great mass of the citizens will most probably possess few other resources than their daily labour, and consequently will always be near to indigence’ (cited in Polanyi 1957, 117).[5] The poor were not to be helped, as this would have interfered with the labour market: the pathological cases had to be closed in hospitals; the others had to be left to die for the good of progress.

Somewhat coherent with their (blind) faith in economic exploitation was the liberal opposition to voting rights for the non-rich. As Polanyi’s ironically noted, ‘it would have been an act of lunacy to hand over the administration of the New Poor Law with its scientific method of mental torture to the representatives of the self-same people for whom that treatment was designed’ (Polanyi 1957, 224). In fact, ‘there was not a militant liberal who did not express his conviction that popular democracy was a danger to capitalism’ (Polanyi 1957, 226).

In sum, according to immoral liberalism, ‘while the pauper, for the sake of humanity, should be relieved, the unemployed, for the sake of industry, should not be relieved. That the unemployed was innocent of his fate did not matter: the point was not whether he might or might not have found work had he only really tried, but that unless he was in danger of famishing with only the abhorred workhouses for an alternative, the wage system would break down, thus throwing society into misery and chaos. That this meant penalizing the innocent was recognized. The perversion of cruelty consisted exactly in emancipating the laborer for the avowed purpose of making the threat of destruction through hunger effective’ (Polanyi 1957, 224).

This cynical belief, that assessed human beings as selfish, was at the basis of what Polanyi called ‘a crusading passion’, ‘a militant creed’ (Polanyi 1957, 137), while ‘rarely was as much as a reasoned argument on the subject to be found’ (Polanyi 1957, 211). In fact, in the nineteenth century, the conception of free market was based upon economic liberalism as ‘the organizing principle of a society engaged in creating a market system. Born as a mere penchant for non-bureaucratic methods, it evolved into a veritable faith in man’s secular salvation through a self-regulating market. Such fanaticism was the result of the sudden aggravation of the task it found itself committed to: the magnitude of the sufferings that were to be inflicted on innocent persons as well as the vast scope of the interlocking changes involved in the establishment of the new order. The liberal creed assumed its evangelic fervor only in response to the needs of a fully deployed market economy’ (Polanyi 1957, 135). As Trevizo (2013, 765) summarized, “moral economists” stated in general that, as capitalism turns land, forests, natural resources and labour into commodities, “the cultural change that results exposes peasants to greater forms of human suffering. Cultural shifts unglue the social relations that historically functioned as social insurance.’ These changes meant in fact an erosion of patrons’ obligations, with consequent outrage at what was perceived as a betrayal of the traditional duties in a moral economy.

From the critique and failure of liberalism, the mentioned move towards social protection brought about an image of a return of a moral economy, based on a specific ethics of capitalism. As Wolfgang Streeck recently noticed, ‘in the late 1960s we tried to convince ourselves that we were seeing… a gradual transition to democratic socialism, to be accomplished by politicized trade unions pressured by their rank-and-file and acting in concern with stronger-than-ever Social-Democratic or Eurocommunist political parties’ (2014, 45). The weberian notion spreads of capitalism as ‘based, not on a desire to get rich, but on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling and rational organization of life, and dedication to work as an end in itself’ (Streeck 2014, 62).

After the interlude of Keynesian economy in what was called a class compromise, free market ideology came in fact back, with many similarities to its first wave, and some differences. Similar to classical liberalism, Colin Crouch noted, ‘the principal tenet of neoliberalism is that optimal outcomes will be achieved if the demand and supply for goods and services are allowed to adjust to each other through the price mechanism, without interference by government or other forces – though subject to the pricing and marketing of oligopolistic corporations’ (Crouch 2012, 17). In this wave as well, free market supporters stated that governments do not have to intervene to protect levels of employment, as ‘If that demand falls, then workers will become unemployed, and as a result those who remain in work will be unable to increase their wages, for the unemployed will be happy to rejoin the labour market at lower wages. In that way the market will find its equilibrium’ (Crouch 2012, 17).

Cynicism, as assumptions and practices of immorality, has been stressed also for neoliberalism – defined by Joseph Stiglitz (2008) as market fundamentalism, characterized by moral depravity. Neoliberalism imposes in fact a moral imperative of competition, bringing an ‘ethos of competitiveness at the center of human life’ (Amable 2011, 6). As in the first wave, immoral (conceptions and practices of) capitalism—what Streeck (2014, 63) called capitalsims’ moral decline–spread. Also in this case, as neoliberal ideas came to dominate, ‘amorality spreads right across social life’ (Crouch 2012, 25). The expected action disposition of rule takers is here as well rational-egotistic (Streeck 2011), so that neoliberal thought institutionalizes cynicism and legitimates greed. The most immoral individuals have more chances of success; there is expectation of unlimited rewards as, in an imperative of maximization of economic gains, competition wins over solidarity. Elites’ interests are thus divorced from interest in system survival (Streeck 2011). Neoliberals preach that ‘provided market are near-perfect, the outcome of a mass of individuals’ selfish behaviors will be consistent with overall public welfare’ (Streeck 2011, 149). Differently from classic liberalism, where the consumer was presented as most influent for market prices, for neoliberalism the share-holders (and their shares) become the dominant concerns, over investment, customers, employees. A moral crisis ensues as inequalities increase—as ‘A political system that amplifies the voice of the wealthy provides ample opportunity for laws and regulations – and the administration of them – to be designed in ways that not only fail to protect the ordinary citizens against the wealthy but also further enrich the wealthy at the expense of the rest of society’ (Stiglitz 2012a, xix).

The neoliberal criticism of the welfare state is based upon the primacy of individual responsibility in self-sustenance. The state is allowed to provide insurance, but only in a competitive market, while social benefits are assumed to lessen the costs of immoral behaviour. Cuts in welfare are presented as liberation of individuals from social dependence (Amable 2011). Often cited by proponents of neoliberalism, von Hayek (1967) suggested that private laws should be applied also to the state and public services offered only in competitive markets. In fact, for him, liberty is the first value, above democracy, legitimizing calls to limit popular sovereignty. Similarly supported is Buchanan and Tullock’s (1962) statement that economic crisis basically stems from political intervention, so that the role of government is inversely proportional to the strength of moral order. Neoliberalists so spread a misleading vision of a trickle-down economy, based on the assumption that giving money to the top will improve conditions at the bottom (Stiglitz 2012a).

This vision is well synthesised in Allan H. Meltzner (2012) in his Why Capitalism?, with his strenuous defense of neoliberalism. In his view, the 2008 crisis is produced indeed not by too much free market, but by not enough of it. While ‘costly regulation encourage circumvention’ (Meltzner 2012, 12), government activities in the market are considered as intrusive and inefficient as ‘well run companies plan for the long term. But governments typically follow the political cycle, a much shorter term’ (Meltzner 2012, 14). Even if ‘regulation may seek laudable ends’, ‘as Kant so presciently warned, mankind is endlessly selfish’ (Meltzner 2012, 42). As individual preferences are for self-interest, rather than social justice or fairness, the choice of rulers need to be often enforced by fear. Moreover, elected institutions are expected to overspending in redistribution: as the income of the median voter lies below the mean income, elected politicians are pushed towards redistribution. At the same time, governments are considered to “have no intrinsic advantage over the private sector in hiring teachers, doctors, nurses, or other professionals, nor any advantage in building schools or hospitals. Rather, they tend to be at disadvantage, out of lack of expertise, lack of competition, failure to refine their operation, or because they regulate themselves more heavily than the private sector’ (Meltzner 2012, 49). While unemployment benefits ‘risk the creation of subsidies for leisure’ (Meltzner 2012, 49), ‘much regulation invites corruption, arbitrary decisions, and circumvention’ (Meltzner 2012, 61).

            In sum, a dominance of the market is based on the assumption that the competition between selfish individuals will bring about economic growth. The effect is that, especially face to economic decline, “the struggle for the remainingprofit opportunities becoming uglier by the day and turning into asset stripping on a truly gigantic scale… public perceptions of capitalism are now deeply cynical. The capitalist economy being as a matter of course perceived as a world of tricks for further enrichment of the already rich” (Streeck 2014, 64).

The cultural dimension: which identity for which movement?

To which extent these narratives affect the development of collective identies is however an open question, which social theory as well as social movement studies might help addressing. Identification is a most important component in the formation of a political cleavage. As observed before, the structuration of social conflicts happened via specific cultural processes, through the creation of specific values, norms, and world-views. While the ‘old’ labour movements had developed strong common visions, embedded in complex ideologies, and new social movements have instead been seen as consolidating and developing new codes, the emergence of collective identities in contemporary societies seems challenged by processes of fragmentation. In what follows, I will first discuss how social fragmentation is expected to impact on identification processes in contemporary sociological reflections on liquid modernity and populism, then looking at how identities have been conceptualized in social movement studies.


Liquid modernity and fragmented societies?

Neoliberalism grew within a specific type of cultural environment. With some pessimism about the capacity of a new collective subject to emerge, Zygmunt Bauman has located in liquid modernity the cultural dimension of neoliberalism. This implies insecurity and flexibility, which make collective identities difficult to develop.

In this view, postmodern men and women have ‘exchanged a portion of their possibilities of security for a portion of happiness. The discontents of modernity arose from a kind of security that tolerated too little freedom in the pursuit of individual happiness. The discontents of postmodernity arise from a kind of freedom of pleasure-seeking which tolerate too little individual security’ (1997, 3). Liquid modernity is so presented as a shift away from the panocticum (based on mutual engagement) toward nomadism. While heavy/solid/condensed/systemic modernity was made of compulsory homogeneity, liquid modernity is said to emphasize momentary impulses. With the end of the illusion of a telos (as a state of perfection to be reached), there is a deregulation and privatization of tasks and duties from collective endowments to individual management. In this view, individualism wins over the collectivity. In a society free of fences, social beings are no longer defined by a fix place in it (Bauman 2000, 22).

Fordism represented the solid (heavy, immobile) phase of modernity: made of law and routine. Other-directed persons pursued ‘fixed-by-others ends in fixed-by-others fashion’ (Bauman 2000, 63), and the life of individuals was organized mainly around their role as producers. In liquid modernity, the life of consumers is instead dominated by seduction and volatile desires (Bauman 2000, 76), networks of possibilities rather than long lasting commitments. With the spread of precarious position, work no longer plays the central role it played in solid modernity and heavy capitalism, characterized by the interdependence of labour and capital (Bauman 2000, 139). Instead, ‘Flexibility is the slogan of the “job as we know it”, announcing instead the advent of work on short-term contracts, rolling contracts or no contract, positions with no in-built security but with the “until further notice” clause. Working life is saturated with uncertainty’ (Bauman 2000, 147). In this vision, at the top of the light/soft capitalism hierarchy are in fact those for whom space matters little, those who can surf. Bauman points therefore at the spreading of insecurity (of position, entitlements, and livelihood), of uncertainty (as to their continuation and future stability), and of unsafety (of one’s body, one’s self and their extensions: possession, neighbourhood, community) (Bauman 2000, 161). The self-assertion of the individual in fact goes together with a denial of the society: ‘To put in a nutshell, “individualization” consists of transforming human “identity” from a “given” into a “task” (Bauman 2000, 31). So, ‘Modernity replaces the heteronomic determination of social standing with compulsive, and obligatory self-determination’ (Bauman 2000, 32).

As community and corporations no longer offer protection through dense nets of social bonds, the search for substitute targets (such as criminality and terrorism) is a reaction to fear. In the past, the modern state had managed fears through protection of social state institutions that construct new webs of social bonds (Bauman 2000, 59) or long term involvement in the Fordist factory; nowadays, a deregulation-cum-individualization develops fears (Bauman 2000, 67). In fact, control of fears is no longer managed by the state, if not in the form of securitarism from new dangerous, redundant, classes (Bauman 2000, 69). While previously citizens’ consensus was given in exchange for protection from the vagaries of the market, nowadays ‘the specter of special degradation against which the social state swore to insure its citizens has been replaced in the political formula of the “personal safety state” by threats of a pedophile on the loose, a serial killer, an obtrusive beggar, a mugger, stalker, poisoner, terrorist’ (Bauman 2000, 15).

In the new context, collective identities are considered as difficult to develop. Individuals are seen as lukewarm towards common good, common cause, good society: the other side of individualization is the end of citizenship (Bauman 2000, 36). This is however not linked to the colonization of the lifeworld by the state, but rather by its decline, as ‘it is no more true that the “public” is set on colonizing the “private”. The opposite is the case: it is the private that colonizes the public spaces’ (Bauman 2000, 39), and ‘Any true liberation calls today for more, not less, of the “public sphere” and “public power”’ (Bauman 2000, 51). This creates vicious circles, as social rights are necessary to keep political rights in place as much as political rights were important in establishing social rights (Bauman 2000, 66). The collapse of confidence is said to bring about fading will to political commitment with endemic instability. A state induced insecurity develops, indeed, with individualization through market flexibility and a broadening sense of relative deprivation, as flexibility precludes the possibility of existential security (Bauman 2007, 14). There is nowhere to escape, as ‘whatever happens in one place has a bearing on how people in all other places live, hope or expect to live’ (Bauman 2007, 6).

A diagnosis of fragmented identities is shared by other scholars, although they are sometimes more optimistic about the potential for collective actors to form in liquid times. According to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000), the resistance of subjective forces develops through ‘activities and desires which refuse the dominant order by proposing “lines of flight”’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 48). Disciplinary regimes thus no longer succeed in controlling the values and desires of young people, who no longer dream of getting a job that ‘guarantees regular and stable work’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 273). Nomadism disrupts the disciplinary condition, as ‘a new nomad horde, a new race of barbarians, will arise to invade or evacuate the Empire’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 213). In this vein, the refusal is visible in various forms of everyday resistance as local struggles ‘leap immediately to the global level and attack the imperial constitution in its generality’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 56).

The multitude thus conflicts permanently with the constituted power of the empire through an autonomous and unmediated action, which becomes political as it starts to confront the repressive operation of the empire. Unitarian, centralized, and hierarchical organizational forms are neither possible nor positive, as society is composed of a ‘multiplicity of irreducible singularities’ (Negri and Hardt 2000, 166). Therefore, the multitude is permanently in the making, assuming rhizomatic forms and leaving no place for political vanguard. Even identity should not aim at consolidation, while there is an emphasis on singularity as always involved in a project of becoming different (Hardt and Negri 2000, 339). During action, singularities are bridged together, establishing what is common and forming a new power oriented to managing the commons. Neither a homogeneous people nor an amorphous mass, the multitude is considered as scattered but united in times of attacks.

In sum, liquid fragmented societies are expected to challenge the development of collective identities, even if however there are different views about the capacity for collective mobilization when identities are not consolidated.

Populist logic as search for the people

Beyond the one on the opportunities and constraints on the development of collective identities, a debate is also open on the content of emerging identities. In particular, terms as populism have emerged to tackle identification processes in times of crisis. First, with their stress on an autonomous new subject, anti-austerity movements have often been defined as populist. Second, a populist reason has been singled out as a need for re-defining the people, particularly strong as previous belonging are challenged.

Populism is a much contested term, as very different movements have been collapsed under its label – including the Russian narodniki, the agrarian movements after World War I in Europe, protests for social credit in Alberta, peronism in Argentina. Seeing it as an ideology, McRae (1970) singled out as common to populism elements such as a strong sense of belonging (which can become xenophobia), conspiracy, apolitical thinking, isolationism, social uniformity, reference to a mythical past. In his analysis, sometimes ‘under the threat of some kind of modernization, industrialism, call it what you will, a predominantly agricultural segment of society asserts as its charter of action its belief in a community and (usually) a Volk as uniquely virtuous, it is egalitarian and against all and any elite, looks at a mythical past to regenerate the present’ (McRae 1970, 168). Defining populism as a syndrome, Wiles (1970) listed as its defining elements moralism, mystical contact between leaders and masses, loose organization and ideology, anti-intellectualism and anti-scientism, anti-establishment and anti-class feelings, racialism, nostalgia, for small cooperatives against big finance, religious beliefs (but against the establishment). Stewart (1970) noted similar social roots, as populism emerges in the periphery in response to problems of modernization and frustration for a lack of channels of access to decision making. Rather that just a discourse emphasizing the role of the people, populism has been defined, in particular in Latin America, as reflecting a specific form of electoral politics from above, based on the leader’s appeal to inter-class coalition of citizens. This is explained, in comparison with Western Europe, by the weakness of classes (in particular the working class) as bases of political mobilization (Roberts 2014).

While more fit to describe right-wing reactions to the crisis, the research on anti-austerity protests stressed their inclusiveness as well as a their refusal of leaders as at ods with mainstream conceptualization of populism. Empirical research pointed however at some innovation in the identification process as compared with previous movements, with a search for a definition of an all-encompassing subject, often defined at the national level, as well as a strong moral call. In this sense, in this emerging phase, anti-austerity movements seem indeed to develop what Ernesto Laclau (2005) has defined as a populist reason. According to him, populism is a political logic: not a type of movement, but the naming, the construction of the people as a way of breaking order and reconstructing it. In fact, he stated, that the democratic subject is formed through the development of relations between heterogeneous subjects, as ‘democracy is grounded only on the existence of a democratic subject, whose emergence depends on the horizontal articulation between equivalential demands. An ensemble of equivalential demands articulated by an empty signifier is what constitutes a “people”: so the very possibility of democracy depends on the constitution of a democratic people’ (Laclau 2005, 171). Recognizing the difficulties in the construction of the people, he points at historical conditions for emergence of popular identities in ‘the multiplication of social demands, the heterogeneity of which can be brought to some form of unity only through equivalential political articulation’ (Laclau 2005, 229). Challenging somehow both Baumann’s pessimistic view of liquid society and Hardt and Negri’s optimism about a move towards the self extension of identities, Laclau points instead at the need for political forms of social reaggregation through a populist reason. Nowadays, globalized capitalism brings about a deepening of the logic of identity formation, but the discursive construction of the people requires frontiers.

It is indeed in times of challenges to previous certainties that specific forms of identification develop.The search for a populist reason, as the need for naming the self and for recognition of the self, is fuelled by a crisis that challenges a process of habituation. Habermas has defined norm conformative action as a habitual and unnoticed adherence to shared social norms – distinguishing it from discourse, which instead testifies for reflexivity (for a discussion see Crossley 2002). Communication plays a central role in this process as far as it is ‘oriented towards the achievement of mutual understanding and agreement’ (Crossley 2002, 155). In a similar vein, Bourdieu’s theory of action stresses the ways in which social life transforms individuals, giving rise to habitus as sentiments, moral competences, interest are related to belonging to a group. A class habitus is so related to the different mix of resources available: economic capital, such as money, property; symbolic capital, such as reputation; cultural capital, such as cultural goods and dispositions, competences; and social capital, as connections, ties that can be used in specific fields. There is an embeddedness of social agents, with embodied competences, but also innovative ones, as actors act strategically and skilfully, not as calculating machines but rather as game players who stick to the rules. The fields are indeed the sites of innovative interactions (Crossley 2002, 179): ‘structures form agents who reproduce structures through their actions and so on’ (Crossley 2002, 177). The autonomy of fields is reduced by economic encroachment, but struggles also tend to spread to different fields with different constraints. In this sense, the crisis itself fuels processes of (new) identification. In times of crisis, a dissonance arises between expectation and reality, as a crisis suspends the doxa, made up of undiscussed ideas, and fuels opinions: a universe of discussion or arguments (Bourdieu 1977, 168).

Actual protests can then be interpreted as non-conformative action using discourse and opinions to challenge habitus and doxa. According to empirical analyses, in fact, in today’s protests the search for a naming of the self that could put together different groups has indeed produced the spread of definitions of the self as the people, or even more the persons or the citizens. These reflected and challenged the cultural effects of neoliberalism.

The expectation is therefore that times of intense changes might push for intense identity building as old belongings no longer provide solid bases for identifycationa nd recognition.

The new spirit of capitalism and its critics

Neoberalism can be also expected to reise specific forms of anti-capitalis criticisms. The bases of justification of capitalism – its spirit in Boltanski and Chiappello’s (2005) analysis – changed indeed with neoliberalism, at its peak and in its crisis. In their analysis, they consider the need for capitalism (per se, immoral, pursuing the imperative of an unlimited accumulation of capital) to find a justification, outside of itself, within different discourses (or cities), as ‘ideological changes … have accompanied recent transformations in capitalism’ (Boltanski and Chiappello 2005, 3). While liberal capitalism justified itself on a combination of new economic propensities (such as avarice or parsimony) and traditional domestic values, and Fordism as based on a faith in rationality and long-term planning, a third spirit of capitalism stresses flexibility, mobility, networks, and merit.

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello (2005) have noted that capitalism has been transformed by criticism, which forced it to adapt its spirit (or justifying ideology). Criticism can in fact ‘delegitimate previous spirits and strip them of their effectiveness’ (Boltanski and Chiappello 2005, 28), sometimes pushing it to incorporate some of ‘the values in whose name it was criticized’ (Boltanski and Chiappello 2005). Distinguishing criticism of inauthenticity, oppression, inequalities, and egoism (Boltanski and Chiappello 2005, 37), they have suggested that the first two sources of dissatisfaction have fuelled an artistic critique; the last two a social critique. While Fordism emerged from a social critique to the first spirit of capitalism, which indeed moved towards more attention to inequalities and egoism, the movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s brought about a critique of inauthenticity and oppression, which was then addressed by the third capitalism spirit. In fact:

the second spirit of capitalism, which emerged at the end of the 1930s crisis and was subject to the critique of mass communist and socialist parties, was constructed in response to critiques denouncing the egoism of private interests and the exploitation of workers. It evinced a modernist enthusiasm for integrated, planned organizations concerned with social justice. Shaped through contacts with the social critique, in return it inspired the compromise between the civic values of the collective and industrial necessities that underlay the establishment of the welfare state. By contrast, it was by opposing a social capitalism planned and supervised by the state – treated as obsolete, cramped and constraining – and leaning on the artistic critique (autonomy and creativity) that the new spirit of capitalism gradually took shape at the end of the crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. Turning its back on the social demands that had dominated the first half on the 1970s, the new spirit was receptive to the critiques of the period that denounced the mechanization of the world (Boltanski and Chiappello 2005, 201).

In their analysis, changes in the conditions of labour contributed to a weakening of the social critique—among them, the casualization of employment, with job insecurity; the reduction of constraints by labour law; the segmentation of the wage earning class, with a process of selection and exclusion of unskilled workers towards less protected positions or unemployment; as well as an increase in the intensity of work for the same wage. As they noted, the weakening of the unions testify to the difficulties the social critique encountered at this time, as ‘Changes in the world of work during this period continued to prompt complaints or indignation. But the institutions traditionally responsible for transforming complaint… into a general condemnation and public protest were widely discredited and/or paralyzed’ (Boltanski and Chiappello 2005, 272). Deunionization was in fact accompanied by repression and criticism. Although unions struggled to adapt to the changing times, they lost legitimacy because of their participation in cutting employment – up to the crisis of the model of the social class itself (Boltanski and Chiappello 2005, 300).

As Boltanski and Chiapello observe, however, since the 1990s, a social critique is again on the rise (Boltanski and Chiappello 2005, 201 ff.), moving from stigmatization of exclusion in the humanitarian movement to its politicization in movements against precarity, along with calls for more intensive controls on the market. At the same time, an artistic criticism develops given an increase in anxiety, and a lack of liberation, as there is no abolition of alienation, but rather increasing commodification.

The two types of criticism can indeed approach each other, as we can see in the global justice movement (GJM), first, and the anti-austerity protests later on. In both, fragmentation is addressed by a positive emphasis on diversity, although with different characteristics: as a tolerant identity bridging a plurality of experiences in the global justice movement, or rather as the appeal to an all-encompassing people or citizenry suffering from the crisis of neoliberalism in the anti-austerity protests. Linked to this, while the global justice movement had stressed cosmopolitan visions as the only way to challenge global capitalism, the anti-austerity protests focus attention on the nations, defending national sovereignty face to the also cross-national iniquities imposed by neoliberalism and its crises. A sort of nationalism of the oppressed emerges especially where external conditionalities imposed by the EU or the IMF hit harder. Additionally, while the global justice movement still showed hope in the political reformability of national and international organizations, this is no longer the case for the anti-austerity protests, which stress more the depth of degeneration of basic ethical principles. We can expect that a moment of crisis of neoliberal capital could facilitate the approaching of different critiques of capitalism, which had appeared as rooted in different social groups.


Identity in social movement studies

Social movement studies can contribute to address the questions related with the strength and content of collective identities in times of neoliberalis, as they contributes to research on identification a relational view, stressing the cognitive and affective mechanisms which intervene in the creation and consolidation of collective identities.

Scholars of the labour movement looked at the relations between structural strains, consciousness thereof, and then mobilization: class in itself and class for itself have in fact been discussed the analysis of the making of the working class (Thompson 1991; Calhoun 1982). At the same time, all the challenges in the creation of an identity of the working class were recognized. Class consciousness did gather some attention in Marxist approaches interested in the development of an awareness of the proletariat of itself as a class, with a resulting shift from class in itself to class for itself (Crossley 2002). In Marx’ expectation, industrial workers were the most likely to develop a class consciousness, given the centrality of the conflicts around the factory as well as their particular concentration (Eder 2013). However, the worsening of exploitation and the concentration of capital proved an insufficient condition for the development of such awareness. While Craig Calhoun (1982) noted the difficulty for a class to act as collectivity if there are no communal bonds, Offe and Wiesenthal (1980) pointed at the workers’ need to develop a collective identity, on which they can assess the value of collective action. In fact, in the evolution of the labour movement, bonding happened, often at the local level, when relations were dense, corporate (linking groups), and multiplex (with overlapping of different relationships) (Savage 1987). In Antonio Gramsci’s view, in order to challenge the hegemonic discourse of the bourgeosie, the workers need indeed a collective intellectual, which, embodied in the party, could develop a counter-cultural consensus in a dispersed social basis (Gramsci 1955; also, Tarrow 2012).

Also in social movement studies, collective identification is expected only if there is awareness of the fact that one’s own destiny is in large part linked to material conditions, while the lack of such awareness is defined as false consciousness (Snow and Lessor 2013). In general, the responsibility for the unpleasant situation needs to be attributed to a deliberate producer (Klandermans 2013a). In order for a grievance to emerge a specific strain has to be cognitively linked to criticism of the ways in which authorities treat social problems/groups – on the bases of suddenly imposed grievances or assessments of violation of widespread principles (Klandermans 2013b, 5). Grievances, as feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment, or indignation, in fact originate in material conditions but, in order to mobilize, require psychological processes of comparison with others and cognitive processes producing assessment of procedural injustice (Snow 2013a).

Together with an assessment of one own interest, there is however also a mobilization of normative concerns. A moral appeal was often linked with the political one. Some social movement scholars have also insisted on a moral dimension of protest. In particular, James Jasper, in his The Art of Moral Protest (1997), presented a collective identity as consisting of ‘perceptions of group distinctiveness, boundaries and interests for something closer to a community than a category’ (Jasper 1997, 86). Identity is in this vision pre-eminently moral as it carries moral obligations, based on moral aspiration such as ontological or economic security, professional ethics, religious beliefs, community allegiances, and political ideologies (Jasper 1997, 140). Action comes in fact ‘in fear and moral indignation, not in calculated efforts at personal gain’ (Jasper 1997, 3): it is ‘their ability to provide a moral voice that makes protest activities so satisfying. To give us an opportunity to plumb our moral sensibilities and convictions, and to articulate and elaborate them’ (Jasper 1997, 5). In William Gamson’s influential work, injustice frames produce moral shocks that mobilize into collective action (2013; also Gamson, Fireman and Rytina 1982). The centrality of a sense of injustice for workers’ rebellion has been noted by historians and linked to the expectation of respect by the authority of corporate collective rights, undermined by spreading of capitalist relations (Tilly and Tilly 1981). Kenneth Tucker (1996, 23) noticed the emergence of a French proletarian public sphere, with radical workers creating an ‘equalitarian morality tied to the atelier, in contrast to the atomistic individualism of the bourgeoisie’, bridging aesthetic and moral aspects of work. In their advocacy of direct action, they developed the ideal of moral community as linked to active participation.

These processes are expected to be especially likely in the presence of double deprivation: at both the individual and group levels. It is not so much the cognitive component, but rather an emotionally intense sense of injustice that fuels mobilization into action (Klandermans 2013b, 5). In fact, injustice frames are extremely important for mobilization as ‘hot cognition’, but they require an attribution of responsibility to concrete targets, successfully bridging the abstract and the concrete. As Gamson observed, it is no simple matter to explain ‘how the indignities of daily life are sometimes transformed into shared grievances with a focused target of collective action. Different emotions can be stimulated by perceived inequities – cynicism, bemused irony (for example, ‘Who says life is fair?’), or resignation. But injustice focuses on the righteous anger that puts fire in the belly and iron in the soul’ (2013, 607). Exceptional social dislocations are expected to push disadvantaged groups into action, as the loss-averse will accept risks in order to defend their subsistence and everyday routines (see Hosoki 2013; Borland 2013 for a synthesis). In this direction, David Snow and his collaborators (1998) have talked of quotidian disruption, emphasizing the relevance of dislocations that disrupt or threaten routines that had been taken for granted.

Grievances are however still insufficient to long lasting mobilization. As in labour studies, identity has been a central concept in social movement studies, which have considered it as ‘an act of imagination, a trope that stirs people to action by arousing feelings of solidarity with our fellows and, by definition, moral boundaries against other categories’ (McGarry and Jasper 2014, 3). Social movements are in fact identity fields: they fuel boundary making processes (Benford 2013) as they simultaneously produce identities, as a shared sense of ‘we’, and claim recognition (Bernstein and Taylor 2013; Einwohner 2013). Collective identities are ‘the shared definition of a group that derives from members’ common interests and solidarity’ (Taylor 2013, 39). However, they are not fixed, but rather in progress: they change during the evolution of a movement, and they change in interaction with other actors. Social movements are in fact ‘discursive communities held together not only by common action and bonds of solidarity but also by identities, symbols, shared identity discourses and practices of everyday life that attribute participants’ experiences to particular forms of social injustice’ (Taylor 2013, 43). Ideology, as the articulated system of beliefs, ideas, values that help in making sense of the external reality, is in fact transformed in action (Beck 2013).

Group identification therefore supports the development of (individual) social identities (as self-definition in terms of groups) into collective identities (as cognition shared by the members of a group), and then to their politicization, as attribution of blame to an external actor as well as raised awareness of shared grievances (van Stekelenburg 2013; van Stekelenburg, et al. 2013). Social movement studies have indeed considered collective identities as an emergent group process. In Melucci’s influential definition, collective identity is ‘an interactively shared definition of the field of opportunities and constraints offered to collective action produced by several individuals that must be considered as a process because it is constructed and negotiated by repeated activation of the relations that link individuals to groups’ (1989, 793). A transformation of social identities into collective ones emerged as more likely to develop when members are embedded in social networks, which help in drawing boundaries and developing a consciousness of the importance of possessing a certain social identity, which thus acquires saliency and then becomes politicized.

Politicized collective identities, strengthened by common beliefs and lifestyles, offer an instrument to understand the world. They vary, however, in forms and intensity: strong identification can increase internal solidarity but can also isolate from the outside; assimilationist, broad identities are more inclusive, but tend also to have permeable borders (Jasper 2006).

In sum, while stressing the importance of identification, social movement scholars present it as an identity work: identities do not stem directly from social location and structural positions, but they are rather produced through action and agency. Social movement scholars have in particular looked at the shift from the (strong) class identity of the labour movement, with an overlapping of social categories and class culture, to so-called new social movements, defined more by beliefs in general values not embedded in a specific social group.           New social movement approaches have singled out a colonization of everyday life as challenging previous consolidated identities, and at the same time multiplying existing personal identities and producing a search for collective ones. In Habermas’ perspective, while modern patterns of reasoning make discursive democracy possible, this is jeopardized by a colonization of the lifeworld, as the state controls more and more areas of everyday life. Economic colonization also tends to increase as the welfare state declines (Crossley 2002, 166). Scholars such as Alain Touraine (1981) and Alberto Melucci (1989) have in fact described a move from a unitary vision (the movement personage) to more complex, multiple identities. While new social movements also create codes (Melucci 1989), their values are more flexible and fluid. As other sources of identification lose ground, social movements are expected to become new sources of identities, calling for recognition. Moreover, today’s societies are said to produce politicization of identities endemically, given increasing networking and multiculturalism (Taylor 2013, 43).

Especially with the global justice movement, at the beginning of the new millennium, tolerant and plural identities have developed, bridging together different group identities (della Porta 2005). The need to provide new and broad identities has been considered as all the more urgent in times of crisis, although with different views about the capacity of consolidation of new identities. If new social movements had be seen especially as reactions to state intrusion in the society, anti-austerity protests develop within a context of increasing economic colonization of lifeworlds. These specific conditions might be expected to affect identification processes, especially through increasing fragmentation.

Morality and justice frames in anti-austerity protests in the periphery

The immoral cynicism of elites has been often challenged by a call for the restoration of a moral economy. In his The Moral Economy of the English Crowds in the Eighteenth Century, E.P. Thompson criticized the economic reductionism of much literature on food riots, stressing that people revolting were rather ‘informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs, and in general that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community’ (Thompson 1971, 78). Looking at food riots as very complex forms of direct action, he observed that conflicts between countryside and town were mediated by the regulation of the price of bread, through a sort of political economy of the Corn Laws. While a paternalist model imposed rules on the use of corn and the selling of bread, the growth of intermediaries in the free market and the exports of fundamental goods infringed upon this ‘moral economy’, as it was based upon a demoralizing theory of trade and consumption. Rather than just reacting to hunger, ‘the crowd derived its sense of legitimation … from the paternalist model’ (Thompson 1971, 95), claiming that ‘since the authorities refused to enforce the laws, they had to enforce them for themselves’ (Thompson 1971, 110). In fact, the targets of protests – often including very ritualized hooting or groaning outside the shops – were those singled out as having violated the law. While not requiring much organization, these actions relied upon widespread consensus – in particular, a ‘consensus to the moral economy of the commonwealth in times of dearth’ (Thompson 1971, 126).

A moral framing of protest as countering the amorality of neoliberalism has been noted in research on the anti-austerity protests in the South. As Kenneth Roberts (2008) pointed out in his analysis of ‘The Mobilization of Opposition to Economic Liberalization’, rather than expressing fragmentation and depoliticization, these protests expressed a quest for reincorporation. Analysing anti-austerity riots in Argentina, Auyero (2007) observed that popular protests were produced and influenced in their form by expectation about right behaviour of the others (including politicians) and the self. In a context of widespread misery and uncertainty, rioters constructed a discourse of rights and the value of work, singling out the politicians as those to be blamed.[6]

Research on anti-austerity protest in Latin America has pointed at the movement’s use of reformist calls for restoring old rights. Austerity regimes emerged as inherently unstable, with elite factionalism and popular revolt moved not by blind rage, but by a ‘collective sense of injustice’ (Walton and Ragin 1990, 887), as expressed in slogans such as ‘We won’t pay the debt – let the ones who stole the money pay.’ The reactions to neoliberalism were Polanyi-like calls for social protection.

The rootness of values of social protection has been observed in research on resistance to neoliberalism since the end of the 1990s, with collective demands fuelled by narratives of rights against the open market, seen as a tornado that destroyed previously existing identities. As Heather L. Williams (2001) observes for Mexico, “market transition, in idealized terms, is a set of policies and processes that decreased government intervention in the economy by freeing most domestic prices, lowering tariffs on imported goods, cutting programmable public spending as a percentage of total economic activity, privatizing industry and credit markets, and eliminating most subsidies. … Most importantly, market transitions must be understood as undermining systems of material distribution and systems of clientelistic political control’ (Williams 2001, 55). In fact, as social protection policies in Mexico were altered in favour of market oriented ones, contention shifted towards new constityuencies and new frames (Williams 2001, 57). This new development introduced changes in sites of protest and in the structure of collective demands (Williams 2001, 23). Spaces of protest were formed at the interstices of patron–client relationships, with growing tension between rhetoric of inclusion and practices of exclusion. Lower salaries and blocked consumption fuelled neighbourhood organizations to call for consumption based demands. In the countryside, as well, protests developed over access to land, autonomy and control over production, commodity prices and debt, linked to independent campesino organizations. Especially targeted was the privatization of land, together with lack of services and education and security, repression. Claims of politicians’ corruption spread.

The frame of the moral deterioration of the ruling class was bridged with the call for  redressing previous conditions. The stigmatization of the loss of lost rights was effective, as it resonated with widespread values—in fact, ‘in Mexico, often a considerable part of the public displays solidarity with distributive insurgencies. This is due to a long process and performances that have drawn upon and subverted official doctrines pertaining to citizens’ rights and guarantees before the state’ (Williams 2001, 70). There was in fact a belief in the state obligation to defend the rights of workers, farmers, and the poor: not only civil rights, but inalienable rights to employment, affordable food, housing, health care, and land. Revolutionary nationalism is in fact still a hegemonic public ideology, which ‘precludes an outright denial by officials that protesters’ claims are legitimate’ (Williams 2001, 71).

The Mexican case shows indeed the deeply rooted beliefs in the duties of the state to provide for a modicum of social protection. Not only in democracies, but also in developmental states, citizens kept expecting that those in power had a moral and political obligation to reduce inequalities. Defensive in character and reformist in orientation, also in Argentina the protestors put forward demands for political commitment to job creation and subsidies and denounced the corruption of politicians and unionists, opaque political processes, and lack of accountability. The so-called coralito – the closing down if banks so the costumers could not access their bank accounts – produced anger at the heartless IMF among downward middle class as well. Austerity was accused to unsettle pre-existing status; ‘I was middle class, now I am lower class’, stated a protestor (Silva 2009, 97). The memory of dictatorship supported protest, as it gave resonance to the feeling that ‘we cannot allow this to happen again in Argentina. It already happened to our parents and grandparents … I am going to protest to defend our democracy, freedom, justice and free speech’ (Silva 2009, 97). Also later on, in the 1990s, multisectoral protests, including also middle classes (teachers, professors, lawyers, doctors, accountants, salespeople, housewives) were based on a loose coordination, with Polanyi-style appeals for protection. Despite strong repression, puebladas compelled authorities to negotiate. Slogans included ‘la nueva fabrica es el barrio’ (Silva 2009, 79). Organized unemployed workers’ movements spread new frames of indignation at those responsible for their pains – as one of them declared, ‘the lie that we are responsible for our unemployment, misery and desperation is over … those who govern us and their accomplices are responsible for our desperation’; we have lost all, but ‘will never lose our dignity’ (Silva 2009, 79). Through coordination with urban self-help groups, demands focused on citizens’ rights, including housing, minimum pensions, universal free public education, defence of state banks, moratoria on foreign debt repayment. As hunger and anger combined, mobilization, in the words of an activist, ‘helps us emotionally. You have a space where you can express your anger. This is necessary because we are not heard. What we need is a job, one that is dignified’ (Williams 2001, 91). And another noted, ‘I used to be against roadblocks, but when repression began I went. How to put it, one goes because it’s like an instinct, one doesn’t think about it. Somewhere a siren wails or young people pass by shouting and you join them … and then you see your neighbor’ (Svampa and Pereyra 2003, 126-7). On 20 December 2001, twenty-five deaths and the beating of the Madres de Placa de Mayo fuelled a moral shock, accelerating roadblocks, sackings, loathing but also popular assemblies.

A moral claim to dignity allows then to allocate systemic responsibility for poverty and sufferance. So, the inhabitant of a Chilean shantytown rememberd: ‘I used to be ashamed of my poverty, I saw it as a personal failure. A Communist neighbourhood organizer explained to me that I needn’t be ashamed. That we all share the same problems’ (Schneider 1995, 10). Organizing within the community allowed then, in the words of another activist, to preserve ‘a sense of dignity, pride and identification as pobladores’ (Schneider 1995, 172).

Once again, some of these moral appeals against neoliberalism that developed at the periphery of the world economy spread, through the GJM, to its core. While, however, at the beginning of the years 2000s the aggregate demands for goods was kept here high thanks to consumption driven by cheap loans, only towards the end on the decade the financial crisis hit also the Global North, with ensuing transformations in the framing of the protests.

Anti-neoliberalism and tolerant identities in the global justice movement

While the labour movement had been characterized by a class (materialist) discourse and the new social movement had been defined as post-materialist, challenging the idea of increasing post-materialism, the GJM addressed social issues as central to its own message. Located in the rampant years of neoliberalism’s development, the movement warned about the injustice of increasing inequality as well as its economic inefficiency. Despite the warnings of a potential financial crisis to come, the movement discourse retained some optimistic trust in political reforms that could re-establish social protection. Addressing neoliberal globalization as a worldwide phenomenon, driven mainly by multinational corporations and international organizations, the movement aimed at developing cosmopolitan identities that could incorporate diversity within a tolerant and inclusive vision. While moral frames were certainly used, the political language dominated.

This is visible in the research on the European Social Forum (ESF), that shows frequente reference to a broad political opposition to neoliberalism. So, the activists participating in the Assembly of the Movements of the fourth edition of the ESF in Athens presented themselves: ‘We, women and men from social movements across Europe, came to Athens after years of common experiences, fighting against war, neoliberalism, all forms of imperialism, colonialism, racism, discrimination and exploitation, against all the risks of an ecological catastrophe’ (Declaration of the Assembly of the Movements of the 4th European Social Forum, Athens, 7 May 2006). In their documents, the activists claimed to have been part of a successful fight against neoliberalism: ‘This year has been significant in that a number of social struggles and campaigns have been successful in stopping neoliberal projects such as the proposed European Constitution Treaty, the EU Ports Directive, and the CPE in France’ (Declaration 2006). ‘Globalization and liberalism’ was a main thematic axis at the first European social forum; ‘anti-neoliberalism, anti-patriarchy, for a social and democratic Europe of rights’ a main one in the second ESF; and the topic of social justice remained central also in the following editions (Haug et al. 2009).

Cosmopolitanism was needed face to the global nature of the challenge. The targets of this struggle were identified in a number of international governmental organizations (IGOs). Again the ESF states that ‘Movements of opposition to neoliberalism are growing and are clashing against the power of trans-national corporations, the G8 and organizations such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank, as well the neoliberal policies of the States and the European Union’ (Declaration of the Assembly of the Movements of the 4th European Social Forum, Athens, 7 May 2006). In fact, at the first ESF in Florence (in 2002), the activists were already rooting their movement in a history of struggles targeting IGOs. As the Call of the European Social Movements stated: ‘We have come together from the social and citizens movements from all the regions of Europe, East and West, North and South. We have come together through a long process: the demonstrations of Amsterdam, Seattle, Prague, Nice, Gothenburg, Genoa, Brussels, Barcelona, the big mobilisations against neoliberalism as well as the general strikes for the defence of social rights and all the mobilisations against war, show the will to build another Europe’ (cit. in della Porta 2009a).

While critical of existing international institutions, the global justice movement proposed alternative institutions of world governance (della Porta and Giugni 2009). Without rejecting either the need for a European level of governance or the existence of a European identity (that goes beyond the borders of the EU), it criticized EU policies but asked for ‘another Europe’: a feminist, ecological, open, supportive, and just Europe. Stressing the internal diversity as an enriching characteristic of their movement, the Declaration of the Assembly of the Movements at the third ESF, held in London in 2004, claimed: ‘We come from all the campaigns and social movements, “no vox” organisations, trade unions, human rights organisations, international solidarity organisations, anti-war and peace and feminist movements. We come from every region in Europe to gather in London for the third European Social Forum. We are many, and our strength is our diversity.’ ‘Coming together’, ‘diversity’, ‘Another Europe’: these are all expressions repeated over and over in the documents of the European Social Forum (della Porta 2009a and 2009d).

While denouncing the attack brought about by neoliberal globalization to previously accepted conceptions of citizens’ and human rights, the movement’s discourse still stresses hope in the possibility of political changes. Similarly, the previous Assembly of the Movements, held at the third ESF, stated:

We are fighting for another Europe. Our mobilisations bring hope of a Europe where job insecurity and unemployment are not part of the agenda. We are fighting for viable agriculture controlled by the farmers themselves, a farming industry that preserves jobs, and defends the quality of the environment and food products as public assets. We want to open Europe up to the world, with the right to asylum, free movement of people and citizenship for everyone in the country they live in. We demand real social equality between men and women, and equal pay. Our Europe will respect and promote cultural and linguistic diversity and respect the right of peoples to self-determination and allow all the different peoples of Europe to decide upon their futures democratically. We are struggling for another Europe, which is respectful of workers’ rights and guarantees a decent salary and a high level of social protection. We are struggling against any laws that establish insecurity through new ways of subcontracting work.

Thus, hopes developed around a conception of networking diversities, bridging once-divided movements. The representatives of the GJM organizations interviewed during the Demos project perceived the movement itself in varied and multiple ways (see della Porta 2009a and 2009b). As Table 3.1 shows, re-aggregating the answers to an open question, its main aims were defined as social by two thirds of the groups, international by more than one third; more than half of the groups pointed at new social movement issues, and around one fourth underlined the issue of democracy.


Table 3.1. approx. here


            Organizations converged, in fact, in perceiving the movement as a space in which their own specific concerns could find a larger audience. Respondents did focus on some main issues that have converged in mobilizations on global justice. For organizations active on the South of the world, the GJM represented an occasion for developing alternative mechanisms to regulate markets, trade, and development (the Italian network Sdebitarsi); promoting ‘a vision of the world based upon the dignity of the persons and the respect for human rights’ (Amnistia Internacional Spain). They asked for ‘worldwide legislation for protection of labor rights according to ILO norm’ (the German Kampagne für saubere Kleidung); aiming at eliminating the global inequalities that force people to migrate and fighting against the concept of a fortified Europe (Swiss Solidarité sans Frontières); promoting ‘fair trade, in order to promote sustainable development and put at the centre the small producers’ (International Fair Trade Association) and calling for ‘a change in the rules of international trade’ (Altromercato). Issues of peace and human security were considered as main values for the GJM (Stop the War Coalition) and the eradication of poverty and hunger as necessary in order to achieve peace through justice (Caritas Internationalis), as a main aim of the GJM was ‘to prevent wars, accomplish disarmament, implement international standards’ (Friedens- und Zukunftswerkstatt). Ecological groups stressed environmental issues, presenting the movement as seeking ‘alternatives to the capitalist system that widens the gap between the rich and the poor and depletes natural resources’ (Swiss Les Verts). Traditional concerns for social justice were represented as central by the unions and left-wing parties. Thus, for the International Metalworkers’ Federation, the GJM aimed at ensuring ‘basic human rights, democracy and social justice, through fighting for an alternative model of globalisation which put decent work at the centre of development and trade’. These are not ‘single issue’ concerns, but clearly what each organization considered as a core topic for the agenda of a complex movement (della Porta 2009a).

Singling out neoliberal globalization as a main target, besides these different emphases, the respondents converged on four main concerns: calls for rights, social justice, democracy from below, and the global nature of the action. First of all, a language of rights was used by virtually all groups, with different emphasis on some specific ones. Second, social issues were mentioned, in one way or another, by most respondents. Social justice was the most quoted aim. As stressed by the Italian Emergency, the GJM aimed at ‘Engagement on concrete issues: stating equality among human beings, emphasizing human rights and reduction of differences. These aims can be summarized with the term social justice.’ The quest for another democracy, built ‘from below’, is a third bridging theme, always linked with social justice. Especially by the transnational organizations, attention to democracy was framed in terms of the reform of international governmental organizations. Additionally, however, democracy was perceived as the construction of participative and deliberative spaces. The demand for a return of politics against ‘the market’ was widespread. Finally, a fourth common element was the reference, explicit or implicit, to a global dimension, as expressed in the frequent use of words like global, international, or world-wide (‘another world is possible’).

The Demos data from the document analysis (see Table 3.2) on the basic themes and values mentioned in fundamental documents of social movement organizations involved in the ESF process confirmed in fact the ‘bridging’ function of such frames as ‘alternative globalization’ and ‘democracy’ (about half of the groups mentioned them) as well as ‘social justice’ (almost two-thirds of our groups), ‘global justice’, and ‘workers’ rights’ (about half mentioned both) in the development of a critical discourse targeting neoliberalism as a source of injustice and de-democratization. Ecological values also emerged as quite relevant (about half of the groups cited ecology, and the same proportion mentioned sustainability, with much less frequent attention to animal rights). The Global South was mentioned by about half of the groups calling for solidarity with third world countries, but half of them also stressed the importance of human rights, and one third referred to fair trade. References to women’s rights and peace were also very present (in half of the groups sampled), and the same is true for migrant rights. The big ideologies of the past, however, were less often mentioned by our groups (socialism: 7.8 per cent; communism: 3.3 per cent; anarchism: 3.7 per cent; religious principles: 7 per cent).


Table 3.2 approx. here

Identity is also related with the perception of one’s own role. Diversity is here presented as a main, positive characteristic of the GJM. The process of identity building was in fact a tolerant one, with the criticism of neoliberal capitalism as a master frame. Inclusiveness seemed indeed necessary in order to address the existing fragmentation of the social basis and the weakening of traditional community and associational bonds. The heterogeneity of the movement was highlighted as an innovative feature or an enhancement by comparison to movements of the past (Epstein 2000). The self-definition as a ‘movement of movements’ emphasized the positive aspects of heterogeneous, multiply-faceted identities that reflect social complexity while, as activists often stress, respecting their ‘subjectivity’. There was in fact an identity shift from single-movement identity to multiple, tolerant identities, which helped the movement in dealing with its heterogeneous bases (della Porta 2005), as well as reflecting some individualistic tendency of the new spirit of capitalism. These tolerant identities were characterized by inclusiveness and positive emphasis upon diversity and cross-fertilization, with limited identification. They developed especially around common campaigns on issues perceived as ‘concrete’ and nurtured by an ‘evangelical’ search for dialogue – ‘a great novelty and a huge asset, because it brings together men and women, from twenty to sixty, who discuss with each other, opposing the logic of the old Leftist parties of separating women, young people and so on’ (focus group 4E, 101, in della Porta 2005). The activists from the various generations present in the movement seemed to agree that ‘the fine thing about this movement is its variety and its capacity to bring together the most varied individuals, on objectives common to them’ (1D, 10, in della Porta 2005).

Something seen as ‘kind of epoch making’ was the inclusiveness of the movement: the fact that ‘there really is belonging … yet they’re actually not exclusive, that’s the novelty.’ The action itself reflected and promoted overlapping memberships, with simultaneous expression of multiple identities. This is expressed in this quote from a focus group held with Italian activists:

  1. we are going to the demonstration, what part of the demonstration will we be with? What banner do we parade under? … identity as a social forum is taking roots from the identity viewpoint … those who belong to bigger organizations, according to me they feel belonging to the social forum as something that matters …

B: and try to shift the banner as close as possible …

G: yes, that’s true … at the European Social Forum demonstration there was some wonderful dancing around this sort of thing … you wanted to be in four or five places at once …

C: I think it’s a kind of sign of the times too … as well as the fact that today you can even experience belonging in a different way … there’s no longer political belonging in a strong sense, but you can experience belonging in a different way… (89-93).

It is especially in joint actions – especially when it comes to smaller scales, such as small working groups – that chances emerge for building common values, for being ‘contaminated’, or as one activist says, ‘fluidifying’. The various organizational solutions adopted are thus often defined in pragmatic fashion as experimentations, efforts to get as close as possible to the participatory model: ‘there’s a new willingness to really fluidify, to confront ideas without wanting to pull this way or that’ (3C, 66). Building a common organizational network thus does not rule out other membership – indeed, the co-presence of organizational memberships and identities is seen as an enrichment, enabling a specific nature to be kept while building common identities. As one activist explains, there is participation ‘as long as I can manage to find myself …’ (2D, 46).

Concluding, in the global justice movement the critique of neoliberalism was bridged with a hope for political reform, while plural and tolerant identities developed as a way to address the perceived heterogeneity of the social basis. Calls for global justice worked as a master frame, bridging social concerns to political solutions.

Morality framing in anti-austerity movements

Anti-austerity protests stemmed to a certain extent from the GJM, taking over some of its concerns: not only in terms of the denunciation of neoliberalism but also the stress on a plural identity. As we will see in what follows, there was however a stronger moral framing, as well as more of a reference to all-inclusive identities. If the global justice movement had indeed presented itself as a movement of movements, an arena for the encounter of minorities, in the anti-austerity protests broader categories such as the people, the citizens, persons, the indignados, or the 99% are referred to as resisting the immorality of neoliberalism.

Indignation and occupation

In a similar way as in Latin America, in anti-austerity protests of the 2010s, a moral call for recognition has been expressed (della Porta 2013a,b). The framing of neoliberalism as immoral has indeed been linked to a framing of the self, with the appeal to morality as the common basis of a broad, and broadly different, mobilization base. Pointing at the failure of monetarism to achieve promised stability and growth and at the blatant unfairness of people losing their homes while bankers continued to enjoy large bonuses, Joseph Stiglitz noted that ‘for the young Indignados and protestors elsewhere in the world, capitalism is failing to produce what was promised’ (2012a, xviii). Calling for recognition of the injustice of their conditions, protestors expressed their indignation against the loss of dignity imposed by authoritarian and democratic regime alike. Invoking ‘old rights’, they contested the corruption of the political class, in its collusion with the big corporations. Migrating from South America to Europe and back to North America, the slogan ‘we do not pay for your crisis’ targets the increasing (and increasingly arrogant) power of the ‘1%’.

Anti-austerity protests are, to a certain extent, backward looking. In their framing there is in fact an appeal to previous better conditions, which badly deteriorated during neoliberal capitalism and, especially, during its crisis. Joseph Stiglitz (2012b) is said to have contributed to naming the Occupy movement in the United States, writing in Vanity Fair about the power ‘of the 1%, for the 1% and by the 1%’, as the 1% controls 40 per cent of the income. According to Noam Chomsky, the Occupy movement was ‘the first major public response… to about thirty years of a really quite bitter class war’ (2012, 54).

From this point of view, some of the claims of the movements against austerity can be seen as moderate and reformist – a restoration of old rights. Some of the movement’s proposals appear indeed as quite moderate – a regulation of financial transaction taxes, reversal of rules of corporate governance, that is, ‘a shift of the tax code back to something more like what it used to be when the very rich were not essentially except from taxes’ (Chomsky 2012, 56). In Spain, the indignados called for dignity, against the deterioration of the society perpetrated by neoliberalism. In Spain, Portugal, Greece, or Italy, there has been a strong mobilization in defence of the declining welfare state. In OWS, demands emerged for debt cancellation, full employment, taxation on small financial transactions, a social wage or guaranteed income, universal care centres, paid sick leaves, and taxing the rich – as well as greater political transparency, in particular by getting corporate money out of politics (Taylor et al. 2011, 5). The Italian indignados of the Assemblea San Giovanni group stated in particular the need to defend fundamental rights: ‘The priorities of any advanced society must be: equality, progress, solidarity, freedom of access to culture, ecological sustainability and development, wellbeing and people’s happiness. There are fundamental rights that should be protected in these societies: the right to housing, work, culture, health, education, political participation, free personal development and consumers’ rights to access to those goods necessary for a healthy and happy life’ (cit. in della Porta et al. 2014).

There are also specific calls for a reversal of the legal instruments that neoliberalist actors introduced through amendments to then existing laws, which often dated back to the first turn towards social protection after the defeat of the first wave of liberalism in the 1930s. For instance, in the United States, among the topics often stressed by Occupy activists is the abolition of corporate personhood (della Porta et al. 2014, 60) through a constitutional amendment to declare that 14th amendment should not be used to recognize to corporations the right of persons (including right of speech through donations) – a poster read, ‘Corporations are not people and money is not speech’ (Gitlin 2012, 109). One of the few specific calls is for restoring a 1933 law (the Glass-Steagall Act) that had kept commercial banks from mixing with securities trading, until its repeal through a bipartisan vote in 1999, under President Clinton. Activists also called for taxes on financial transactions, and a reestablishment of regulations against usury as ways for protecting citizens from the vagaries of the market

If claims might appear moderate – to fix the system rather than changing it – there is however a very strong moral appeal spread also through personalized messages. The immorality of the system is denounced, often with reference to its concrete effects on everyday life. As it was observed, ‘over and above these collective emotions of shock and rage is also a “moral vision”, which goes beyond consistent pressures to oust leaders and end regimes, and to propagate a social order that embodies a new social contract. It embodies a different utopian politics that delivers a nation from degradation, serves as a barometer of future progress and calls for democratic politics, citizen participation, demands an end to corruption, and seeks a new beginning’ (Langman 2013, 515). The moral appeal in movements’ discourse is even seen, somehow critically, as avoiding central political issues (e.g. Zizek 2012, 79).

Dignity is a main claim with strong moral tunes. With reference to the Arab Spring, the importance of framing has been stressed by Jeffrey C. Alexander, who reminded us that ‘Social facts enter into history as meanings, not only to outsiders but to revolutionaries themselves’ (2011, 3), observing that ‘The Egyptian revolution was a living drama whose political success depended on its cultural power’ (Alexander 2011, x). The Egyptian events were in fact framed as aiming at re-establishing a lost dignity. Activists stated, ‘This is not a political revolution. This is not a religious revolution, This is an all Egyptians revolution. This is the dignity and freedom revolution’ (cit. in Nigam 2012, 7). The uprising was carried out ‘In the name of my brother’s dignity’, as ‘It isn’t a question of politics, it is a question of dignity’ (Nigam 2012, 7). A demand for dignity is in fact said to characterize the Arab Spring: “Dignity is not a political matter. Dignity is a moral virtue that had now become a political force… a virtue sui generis. The innate humanism operative at the heart of an appeal to ‘dignity’ in effects defines the revolutionary gathering of an inaugural moment for humanity at large” (Dabashi 2012, 127).

Similarly, in Spain the call was to all those who suffered the indignities produced by the crisis of neoliberalism. A YouTube video promoting the 15th of May 2011 demonstration stated, ‘Because we are more humane. Because we are more decent. Because we are more respectable. Because we are more’ (Gerbaudo 2012, 67). Many Spanish indignados in fact told their life stories, singling out the effects of the austerity measures on their everyday lives as well as their future perspectives.

In the same vein, in the United States, on wearethe99percent tumblr.com, activists invited citizens to ‘let us know who you are. Take a picture of yourself holding a sign that describe your situation…. Below that, write “I am the 99 percent”’ (Gerbaudo 2012, 27). People wrote there about the deep injustice they suffered: ‘I am 20 years old and I can’t find a job because I have no experience. I have no experience because I can’t find a job. I am the 99%’; ‘I am a single mum of four, college student, shelf stocker, I go hungry every day. I am the 99% per cent’ (cit. in Gerbaudo 2012, 119). Stories uploaded point in particular at the loss of dignity related with the huge debt crisis, which forced honest people into bankruptcy: ‘I lost my house. I went bankrupt. I still am paying over one thousand dollars in student loans for myself and my husband and that just interest. We will not have children. How could we when we can’t even feed ourselves? I am the 99%’ (van Gelder et al. 2011, 5) or ‘50000 dollars per year debt for son’s tuition at state university’. And: ‘I am a two times felon with no job and I owe over $10,000 in medical bills. I am the 99%’; ‘My parents put themselves into debt so that I could get a fancy degree. It cost over 100 grand $ and I have no job prospects. I am the 99%’ (in Gerbaudo 2012, 119). Recommending politeness, a Web site invited readers to write to executives and trustees of big banks about the indignity of their firms’ behaviour.

Not only is the system considered immoral, but the illegality of the action of the powerful is also denounced. As Stiglitz noted, ‘At one level these protestors are asking for so little: for a chance to use their skills, for a right to decent work at decent pay, for a fairer economy and society… but at another level they are asking for a great deal: for a democracy where people, not dollars, matter’ (Stiglitz 2012b, 21). ‘They’ are accused to ‘have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process… taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity… perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender, identity and sexual orientation, …. continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions… have held student hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is in itself a human right… donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible to regulate them’ (van Gelder et al. 2011., 37The indignados in the Assemblea San Giovanni in Roma state that ‘The will and the aim of the system is the accumulation of wealth, which takes precedence over the efficiency and wellbeing of society. It wastes resources, destroys the planet, creates unemployment and unhappy consumers. The citizens are gears in a machine designed to make a minority entirely unaware of our needs rich. We are anonymous, but without us none of this would exist, it is us that moves the world.’[7] The main target of Occupy, Wall Street, was presented as a symbol of ‘opportunity-making and opportunity breaking where anything that can be marketed is marketed’ (Gitlin 2012, 7).

As for the self-definition by protestors, the struggle against the corrupt 1% is conducted in the name of the citizens suffering from the corruption of democracy. In the Arab Spring, the diversity of participants found a composition in a broad self-definition, as the people fighting against the oppressor: a frequently used slogan was ‘Our people, our people, come and join us’ (El-Ghobashy 2012, 35). And the slogan ‘the people want…’ spread quickly and easily across the Mediterranean and Nord-African region. If for Mubarak, protestors were foreigners, spies, irrational, primitives, outlaws, chaos, for the protestors the regime was barbaric and arrogant, brutal, and Mubarak a modern day Pharaoh, while they themselves were the people, spontaneous and leaderless, young, Egyptians, democratic (Alexander 2011).

Similarly, in Spain, activists identify with all-encompassing definitions of those who resist. The manifesto of one of the most influential of the 15M movement in Spain, Democracia Real Ya, under the title ‘We are normal, common people’ read:

We are like you: people who get up every morning to study, work or find a job, people who have family and friends. People who work hard every day to provide a better future for those around us. Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic, and social outlook which we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice. This situation has become normal, a daily suffering, without hope. But if we join forces, we can change it. It’s time to change things, time to build a better society together (cit in Gerbaudo 2012, 82).

In a similar vein, in the United States, the participants in Occupy wrote: ‘We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything’ (Gerbaudo 2012, 119).

Moreover, in the self-definition, a reference to the nation represents an innovation vis-à-vis previous movements. National flags are indeed used in many of these protests, from the Icelandic flag to the American one. Appeals to the nation increased, in fact, during the protest of 2011.

Pride on national identities emerged during the Arab Spring, contributing to identification processes that gave the nation a positive value. In the words of a protest leader in Egypt, ‘we have been a cowardly nation, We have finally to say no’, and this in the name of ‘Egypt, the land of the Library of Alexandria, of a culture which contributed groundbreaking advances in mathematics, medicine, and science’ (Alexander 2011, 25). Slogans read ‘raise your head high, you’re an Egyptian’, ‘We shall die for Egypt to live’, ‘our country has been humiliated so much’, ‘Wake up, Egypt’, ‘We are all the Egyptian people’ (Alexander 2011, 26-28, 42). As an al-Jazeera journalist observed, ‘despite the number of teargas canisters fired at protesters and the number of those who have been beaten and detained . . . a long dormant patriotism and pride has been awakened’ (Alexander 2011, 30). In fact, in Tahrir Square reference to national symbols even increased over time:

Liberation was a word with several meanings in the square. People arrived demanding free elections, regime change, an end to police brutality, improvement in their economic lot, or all of the above. As the days passed, the discourse was slowly taken over by expressions of patriotism. The people’s art in every corner of the square became less visible in a staggering mass of Egyptian flags. The consensus against Mubarak developed into a jubilee of national pride. Following Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, Tahrir erupted in joy. ‘Hold your head high’, chanted hundreds of thousands, ‘You are an Egyptian’ (Shokr 2012, 45).

National flags resonated also with the anti-colonialist tradition in Tunisia where, as an activist stated, ‘the flag was a symbol we had especially used [when playing] against the French [national team], but now it means that the politicians have no right to wave it, it has come back into the people’s hands’ (Sergi and Vogiatzoglou 2013, 228).

In the search for unifying symbols, the exclusion of party flags also facilitated the spread of national ones. In Portugal, songs and slogans of the Carnations Revolution also testified to the national rootedness of the protest (Baumgarten 2013). In Greece, the use of flags from the 1821 anti-ottoman revolution and the references to the heroes of independence helped a part of the protestors to locate their struggle within a glorious past. National flags were indeed problematic symbols here. As an activist remembered, ‘When I first saw the flag, I was sick, I said this cannot be happening! I flipped out in the beginning, they would even sing the national anthem in front of the parliament… I said, we must be surrounded by nationalist monkeys, fascist chimpanzees!’ (Sergi and Vogiatzoglou 2013, 228). Even in this case, however, the activists realized that the people with the flags ‘are members of our society, they are part of the people who will revolt when the time will come. At the very end, we were struggling for the same purposes and goals’ (Sergi and Vogiatzoglou 2013, 228). So, one of them stated: ‘We came to realize that the flag-carrying people were members of the ex-middle class, those whose life had literally been crashed by the crisis. Those people, when looking for a banner of resistance to identify themselves with, opened their closet and what they found inside was the Greek flag. Therefore, they took the Greek flag and came out to the street’ (Sergi and Vogiatzoglou 2013, 229).

The use of national flags became inclusive, however, when more of them started to be shown at the same time. Often, protestors waved at the same time Icelandic, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Egyptian and/or Tunisian flags. So, in Greece for example, ‘the identification with the national symbols was not perceived as an attempt to construct barriers to the neighboring Mediterranean countries, but rather as a symbol of the Greek people participating in a common effort to over through neo-liberal policies at the global level’ (Sergi and Vogiatzoglou 2013, 229). In Portugal, similarly, there were expressions of solidarity with those who struggled against austerity in other countries – synthesized in slogans such as ‘We are all Greeks’; or ‘Spain, Ireland, Portugal: our struggle is international’. In this sense, in some countries especially, national symbols came to symbolize solidarity with citizens struggling against austerity policies.

In sum, in the development of populist reasons we cannot really speak of either fearful individuals or of winning multitudes, but rather of a complex search for identifying a new frame that could encompass the large majority – 99 per cent – of suffering citizens. Calls for social justice reflected attention to deteriorating material conditions but, differently than in right-wing populism, this did not bring about an exclusivist cultural position.

Inclusive identities in European protests

Survey data at demonstrations confirms that, in the movements we are analysing, claims for social justice are framed in an inclusive way, calls for re-establishment of social rights and references to the people and the nation do not develop into exclusivist claims. Rather, ‘materialist’ claims against social injustice are bridged with culturally inclusive ‘post-materialist’ values. Our data from the surveys in Italy also confirm a bridging of claims for social and cultural integration, as anti-austerity protestors called for state intervention to reduce inequality and for an integration of immigrants. They scored, that is, very high on indicators of both ‘materialism’ and ‘postmaterialism’. In general, even if with some differences, demonstrators strongly support the statement that ‘Government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off’, and oppose the one that ‘Even the most important public services and industries are best left to private enterprise.’ On cultural issues, they emerge as anti-authoritarian (on the statement ‘Children should be taught to obey authority’) and extremely inclusive (on the statement ‘People from other countries should be allowed to come to my country and live here permanently if they want to’). There is indeed a very strong agreement on the need for the state to reduce economic injustice and oppose privatization. In most of the covered European countries, protestors strongly support redistribution to the state and resist privatization (Figure 3.1). At the same time, advocacy for migrants and migration testifies to support for cultural inclusivity. Significantly, these values tend to be higher in the countries more heavily hit by the crisis (Italy and Spain), but also in social-democratic Sweden.


Table 3.1. approx. here


            Comparing marches in the Italian case indicates that calls for social protections are more widespread in anti-austerity protests (in particular among participants in the No Monti day, Florence 10 + 10, and labour protests). Participants in the other marches also share however similar positions (Figure 3.2). Moreover, the data show that support for state intervention is often combined with inclusive visions on migration issues and anti-authoritarian positions. For this mobilized section of the population, socio-economic and cultural positions converge towards calls for broader social inclusion. Interestingly, these positions tend to be shared by all participants, with just a small decline in the support of the younger cohorts for state redistribution of income from the better off, and opposition to privatization of important services. Subjective class location and job position also have little impact (with only some more orientation towards materialist claims by workers in full time positions and retired people).

Figure 3.2 approx. here

Challenging a view of weak identification, we found that participants tend to identify quite a lot both with each other and with the organizations that called for the protest. In most protest events the identification is more horizontal: higher with the other participants than with the organization (see Figure 3.3). Crossing with age, subjective class position, and job position, we note a slight decline in identification for the younger cohorts and an increase instead for those in full time positions, or retired.


Figure 3.3 approx. here

There are, however, strong negative emotions as well. On a scale between 1 (not at all) and 5 (very much), the average score is 4.5 when marchers are asked if they feel angry, and about the same when they are asked if they feel worried (with higher scores, up to 4.76, for those who participated in demonstrations on labour issues). Frustration (average 3.8) and fear (3.1) are slightly less commonly expressed, but still widespread.

In sum, we find among participants in anti-austerity protests of various types a call for state intervention, linked however with an inclusive conception of citizenship. Even in a liquid society, participants in protests stress feelings of solidarity and collective identities. Moderate in their claims for reforms, sometimes with a reference to long established rights, the activists do express a very strong moral call with broadly encompassing identities.


Cleavages include a cultural dimension: the social background contributes to constitute a cleavage when citizens sharing a certain structural position are embedded in a set of values, norms, ideas on which collective identities are based. Social movement studies have indeed considered the building of collective identities as a central process in the mobilization in collective action. Identities are embedded in the social context, but they are also constructed, continuously changing through time. Strategic dilemmas emerge on the depth and breadth of the collective definition of the self, as well as of the other. Identifying processes are especially relevant for anti-austerity protests developing in times of challenges to a shared doxa.

Collecting identification has always been a challenging but necessary process for emerging movements, as the diversity of individual positions on the labout market as well as social dispersion made mutual recognition difficult. The development of moral indignation into political claims has always required time and energies. Especially as social transformations disrupt old identifications, identity works becomes all the more necessary. Social conditions are therefore far from being directly traduced in collective identities, but for sure the contextual conditions in which they develop influence their content,

Recognizing that social scientists are split in their expectation on the capacity of collective identities to raise and, especially, consolidate in liquid societies, I have looked at the specific content of emerging collective identities in social movements developing against neoliberalism. In particular, I have looked at what Polanyi (1957) called the continuous double movements between free market and the protection of the society, focusing the attention upon the immoral dimensions of the second ‘great transformation’: the neoliberal one.

Social movement studies have pointed at the importance of identity building as a process in which social belonging acquires a cognitive, collective dimension and can then become politicized, as responsibility for problems are attributed to a political entity. Looking at movements as identity fields, social movement studies have examined the relationships between some contextual dimensions and the type of collective (often politicized) identity. If community and associational bonds favour the emergence and survival of strong, unitary, and rigid collective identities, we have expected the shift from Fordism, as balancing capitalism and incorporation, and post-Fordism, as a new free market turn, as challenging those types of identity. While some scholars considered liquid society as individualizing, and others thought that identity work could be avoided in the spontaneous mobilization of precariousness, I suggested that different types of collective identities might emerge, reflecting the challenges of neoliberalism to the old ones. As cultural trends spread precarity and insecurity among broad and heterogenous social groups, the identity work of emerging social movements needs to be oriented towards the building of multiple, flexible, tolerant identifications of the self. If neoliberal hostility to state intervention and to discourses and practices of social protection creates feelings of insecurity, emerging protests can work as critical juncture in constructing new collective identities, as populist reasoning—as re-construction of the identity of the people– seems needed in times of challenges. The degree of perceived disruption in everyday life, and the perceptions thereof, can indeed lead to expectations that the content of collective and politicized identities will change with the development of the crisis.

Building upon Polanyi’s work, I have suggested that neoliberal attacks against societal protection are not only made up of policies that, led by a monetarist economy, focus on cuts in public services and allow for the growth of inequalities, even in the most extreme forms. Rather, neoliberalism is also a cynical ideology according to which profits have to be maximized at all costs. Public intervention is stigmatized as an obstacle to the full swing of the free market, and public services in particular as not only increasing budget deficits but also creating distortion of labour markets. Privatization of services is privileged, with only a residual welfare for the poor.

Like liberalism during the first ‘great transformation’, neoliberalism defies the compassionate discourse of previous capitalist justifications, and any social pact oriented to balance free market and social protection. It represents a paradigmatic shift away from the recognition of a societal solidarity in the name of individual responsibility. In its cynical view, the most selfish sentiments are considered as the most beneficial for a society, where welfare is supposed to trickle down automatically, from the rich to the poor. Since the beginning of the millennium, social movements have stigmatized the neoliberal ideology as unjust and inefficient. Assuming immorality, it produces immorality.

The effects of these cultural transformations on the construction of collective identities are discussed in social theories as well as in social movement studies. Theorizations of a liquid society, with their emphasis on multiple individual identities, changing subjective identification, and soft (or weak) collective identities, stressed the difficulty of the development of a sort of class consciousness of the emerging groups of losers, and others emphasized instead a sort of automatic insubordination of the multitudes. Social movement studies, meanwhile, pushed to look at identification processes as always in progress: they require an identity work, which is relational in nature, with identities fields which are plural and ever-changing.

In Polanyi’s double movement, resistance to free market tends to emerge in the society taking specific cultural forms. The labour movement has traditionally denounced the betrayal by the bourgeoisie of the very values of the French revolution: freedom, equality, and solidarity (della Porta 2013a). In the beginning of the 2000s, the GJM denounced the injustice of rampant neoliberalism, bridging various groups and associations around calls for citizen rights and social justice, as once broadly accepted principles which had been betrayed in the capitalism move from social protection to free market. Within cosmopolitan visions, the building of alternative, democratic institutions of global governance was called for. Tolerant identities framed the social diversity of the basis of reference as a richness of the movement. With Boltanski and Chiapello (2005), we noticed, in fact, an interaction between the dominant spirit of capitalism and its criticism. After the concern for liberty of the new social movement, under neoliberalism social issues are back as source of identification – the social critique of the spirit of capitalism, in Boltanski and Chiapello’s language (2005), came back, even if it did not substitute for what they call artistic critique.

Pushing forward the calls for social justice, the anti-austerity protests developed more of an ethical discourse. Against the immorality of capitalism, they elaborate a moral framing through which neoliberalism is stigmatized (Thompson 1971). Sometimes within a reformist frame, the cynicism of the ‘1 percent’ is denounced, as responsible for the stripping of citizens’ most fundamental rights, such as food, housing, and health. The very legal system that had protected the society, granting a modicum of welfare and the reduction of social inequalities, is seen as falling victim to the greed of an unholy alliance of business and politics. While keeping an inclusive stance towards issues of cultural integration, the activists of the anti-austerity protests seem however more concerned than the global justice activists were with the defence of national sovereignty.

In times of changes and challenges, a populist reason, as definition of the constituency, is a central focus of the identity work of recent movements. Here as well, we find telling differences in the comparison of the global justice movement and anti-austerity ones. In fact, even if both stressed inclusivity, the global justice movement presented itself, with a more cosmopolitan vision, as a movement of movements – that is, an alliance of minorities – while anti-austerity protestors defined themselves as a broad majority (up to the 99%) of those suffering for the injustice of neoliberalism and its crisis. If the former referred to a master frame as social justice, articulated through calls for political reforms, the latter rather (morally) appealed to a common sentiment like outrage or indignation (and indeed, hope was more present in the movement in the rampant years of neoliberalism and rage in the years of crises). The perception of a lost sovereignty was reflected in, and contrasted by, a proud reference to the nation, symbolized in the use of national flags (even if in an inclusive fashion) rather than the cosmopolitan rainbow flag of the global justice movement. A moral discourse was opposed to the immorality of neoliberalism, with expression of indignation and call for recognition of lost (citizen but also human) rights. To a certain extent backward looking, the movements of the crises called for the restoration of lost rights, denouncing the corruption of democracy. If a moral framing was intertwined with a political one, the balance of the two seems to be changing, with moral discourses increasing in importance when moving from the Arab Spring to Southern Europe and then to the United States.

All in all, processes of identification also developed within anti-austerity protests, with a framing that reflected resonant visions of the crisis as produced by elites’ greed, contrasted with the sufferance of the people. Even in fluid society, times of crisis were not times of total individualism, but rather of a different identity work, to a certain extent pointing to an emotional identification more than to a cognitive one. If a moral dimension was of course present in both the GJM and antiausterity protests, it was bridged with more reformist hopes towards the achievements of “concrete utopias” in the former, and instead with deep outrage at the indignity of neoliberalism in the latter. As we discussed, the mentioned differences between the global justice and anti-austerity movements are linked to the evolution of neoliberalism.

Also in this chapter, I stressed similarities across movements in the ways in which, even in times of crisis, identity work is performed and a particular framing of the self develops. More systematic comparison is needed in order to understand how some common themes are bridged with traditional social movement cultures at macro and meso levels, as well as on the impact of location in the capitalist world system, capitalist diversities, intensity of the crisis on the cultural dimension of the cleavage. Additionally, while my reflections have addressed the mobilized activists in general, a focus needs to be added on the ways in which collective identification processes are affected, at the micro level, by the objective socio-economic condition and the subjective class location.


[1]. This was confirmed, for example, by Ronald Dore’s (2000) research on Japanese mutual trust, by Piore and Sabel (1984) on flexible specialization, by Sorge and Streeck (1988) on diversified quality production, with strong trade unions, institutionalized worker participation on the shop floor and above, with relatively high wages and relatively low wage spread.

[2]. As Scharpf (2011) noted, democratic institutions have indeed a double political responsibility to avoid crises: responsibility towards the will of the people but also toward the common good.

[3], The UK’s ‘Big Society’ program, launched by conservative premier Cameron with the aim ‘to shift responsibility for meeting social needs from the state to individual families and community, and to shift service provision from the public sector to charities, local communities-based groups and business’ (Coote and Shahenn 2013, 243), is part of a more general trend in western democracy, which has the effect of pitting local communities and voluntary groups against each other for access to ever more limited resources.

[4]   Results from other surveys conducted among WSF participants have confirmed this profile (Ibase 2006; Brunelle 2006).

[5]. Or, ‘The conditions most favorable of the prosperity of agriculture exists when there are no entails, no unalienable endowments, no common lands, no right of redemption, no tithes’ (ibid., 180).

[6]. Moral discourses spread also in movements targeting international actors (Bushy 2010).

[7] http://www.italianrevolution.org/italia-indignataalzati-e-cammina, accessed 30 March 2012.