In 2008 neoliberal capitalism went into crisis; and in 2010 this became a crisis of the neoliberalism of the European Union. In response to both of these crises, the EU’s political and economic elites sought to advance an agenda of heightened neoliberalism – more austerity, less welfare, lower wages, more precarious employment, worsened housing provision, and reduced access to public education – all in the name of reducing government debt, “rescuing” the economy, and improving profitability.
Rather than solve the crisis of neoliberalism; these measures simply made matters worse – both for those who suffered directly as a result of austerity; and for the neoliberal model as a whole. Rather than a return to stable growth, we have instead witnessed ‘secular stagnation’, rising social inequality, a collapse of political legitimacy and an associated rise of authoritarianism, and the emergence of a new bubble economy.
In place of passively accepting these developments, Europe’s working class have responded with new forms of disruptive action – highlighting both an unwillingness to embrace defeat or austerity, and an inability of Europe’s neoliberal elite to secure its efforts at domination and exploitation.
Pragmatic and prefigurative action
We see new, innovative forms of protest, based on direct democracy and horizontal organizational forms – often used by those who have been unable to access more conventional means to express a political voice, or to improve their material well-being.
What makes the development of this type of disruptive subjectivity not only noteworthy but also impactful is its capacity to subvert existing types of domination and exploitation, through what is often termed ‘prefigurative action’ (action which attempts to use methods informed by the type of better society we would like to live in – direct democracy, equal and open input into decision-making and participation, radically cooperative and democratic forms of organisation).
In particular, pragmatic prefigurative agency has proven able to partially re-politicise the depoliticized and technocratic socio-economic governance that characterized both European and national level austerity-based strategies of crisis management.
Austerity has therefore been politicised; highlighting its contestable nature and the degree to which it is a political choice taken by both national and supranational institutions.
Collective solidarity, and the repoliticisation of previously individualised social problems, have acted to empower subjects who were otherwise at risk of being burdened by debt, guilt and shame. This, moreover, has allowed collective actors to experience a capacity to act and intervene.
To a certain extent, this represents a merging of more conventional forms of political activity and the collective action of organised labour, with the practices and agents of radical prefigurativism that were, prior to 2008, more typically associated with the notion of ‘horizontalism’ within the anti/alter-globalization movement.
This adoption of the tactics of radical prefigurativism explains the prevalence of the use of methods such as occupations and assemblies, as a means by which to advance the goals of the pragmatically prefigurative worker. It also explains the oftentimes awkward or unusual relationship that collective activity has had with the established trade unions, and the emergence (or re-emergence) on certain occasions of independent trade unions. At least temporarily, we argue, these new repertoires of action were able to prevent workers from having to passively accept austerity measures, reduced wages, longer working days, and redundancies.
One of the main ‘weapons’ available to the pragmatically prefigurative worker is the capacity to publicise the negative actions of those seeking to assert domination. This focus on negative publicity has been enabled in part by the turn to more radical and innovative forms of collective association, as well as being necessitated as a strategy by the heightened difficulty with which more conventional forms of material refusal (such as official strikes coordinated by trade unions) can be conducted.
Many of these new opportunities for disruptive activity, moreover, have been facilitated by the technological development of social media. In addition, we see the pragmatically prefigurative worker adopt a purposeful willingness to disseminate the lessons and achievements gained in particular struggles, so that we see a tendency for earlier experiences to inform and assist later ones.
The pragmatic nature of this move towards radicalism also explains both the willingness to attempt a re-connection with more established channels of representation and mobilisation, and in some cases to directly seek to re-enter those institutions. Likewise, the disaffection that fuelled much of the development of pragmatic prefigurativism also explains the ambivalent and cautious attitude commonly adopted during this process of re-connection. The main outcomes of these developments, we claim, are both the emergence of new and important means by which experiences of domination and exploitation can and have been disrupted; alongside a similar disruption of the attempt, that is central to neoliberal governmentality, to ensure that social problems are experienced as individual and personal failures.
This blog highlights the development and impact of the pragmatic and prefigurative worker, and the disruptive effect she has had during the so-called ‘age of austerity’.