Creating the Seeds of Capitalism’s Death: Social Movements and Civil Society

The increasingly globalised, transnational character of contemporary capitalism, with its attendant instability and crises, has led to the development of globally oriented social movements. These movements are an answer to the injustices and failures found in international capitalism, and aim to combat it through an equally internationalist outlook with heterogeneous characteristics and multiple sites of resistance. The post-industrial, fluid nature of capitalism has allowed for the structure of society to change in a way that suits global social movements. In particular, the capitulation of capitalist economies after the 2008 Great Recession and the move toward more networks within capitalist structures has created conditions that show weaknesses in capitalism’s armour. It provides an opportunity for social movements to create resistance and change economic identities. As Touraine describes it, “the reference is not to a certain type of civil society, but to a process of social transformation, to a process of globalization”[1].

We can see these global social movements as new social movements in the sense they aren’t focused on the old paradigms of pure class struggle in an industrial context, but rather on changing socio-economic circumstances, co-opting forms of capitalist economic organisation and creating new socio-economic institutions. They are not fighting for reform or revolution, but rather for the creation of a new paradigm of socio-economic existence. Within this, I intend to look at two distinct but related global social movements.

The first is the anti-globalisation movement, a movement that “directly attacks global capital’s economic and political infrastructure with a radically democratic politics and a strategy of confrontation”[2] and that is “not organized around a single issue”[3]. This movement is very heterogeneous in the sense its composed of multiple actors and groups with a large array of concerns, ranging from climate change to economic reorganisation. In this broad spectrum of movements we see groups like the World Social Forum, who attempt to link and organise different movements under the banner of economic change and the uprooting of neoliberalism, moving society away from capitalist organisation.

The second is the Fairtrade movement. While generally seen as under the rubric of the anti-globalisation movement (AGM), I believe they have divergent elements that make them separate. The Fairtrade movement has more of a focus on co-opting capitalist organisation by relying on the modern structure of markets and attempting change from a more reformist position.

Fundamentally, the conception of global social movements can be seen as viewing globalisation as a process of objective and subjective criteria, with the objective comprising the structural factors and the subjective comprising the way these are identified and placed within social relations[4]. With this in mind, global social movements are creating new paradigms that interact within this framework, creating sites of resistance against the existing power relations. The way capitalism is co-opted via the creation of new regulatory apparatuses comprises the objective, and the creation of new socio-economic concepts comprises the subjective. These are new social movements, who are both acting on the subjective of identity and sociality and the objective of real trade and movement of goods and capital. They aim to co-opt and change the economy and social sphere. This is can be described with the IWW’s old dictum “building a new world in the shell of the old”.

The orientation towards global social movements can be seen as a response, or a reaction, to the movements of neoliberalism and globalisation within the rubric of capitalism. We can see a reaction to changing power relations, as labour is subsumed under capital, moving away from the corporatist framework of the post-war consensus where labour (as represented by trade unions) had a larger stake in the wider economy. With “the neoliberal revolution, social and economic order was reconceived as benevolently emerging from the ‘free play of market forces’”[5]. As a result of this deregulation of capital, it became an international, borderless phenomenon, transcending the nation-state and the regulatory web that the state created to encompass financial capital’s movement.

Without the barriers, capital took on an international character, leading to the development of modern globalisation in the 1990s. With this came a massive commodification of social forces, with privatisation of public services not just in the developed world but also in the developing world. The fictitious commodities (as identified by Polanyi), money, labour and land, have all met their “critical threshold” with “institutional safeguards that served to protect them from full marketization” being “eroded on a number of fronts”[6], one main cause of erosion being the power of capital to corrupt political and social institutions and engage in regulatory capture.

Global social movements can then be seen as a burgeoning resistance to this change in power relations, acting as a form of resistance through re-establishing forms of regulation and barriers that can prevent the power of capital. As Foucault has noted “where there is power, there is resistance”[7]. These social movements act a new governance structure to oppose transnational capitalism and re-impose upon it “the idea that less could be more”[8]. There is an aim to bring back conceptions of justice and equality into a world where developing countries are becoming significantly unequal, as is the case with populations in the BRICS[9] countries and most other nations. The movements can be seen as two-pronged in their action. The first is replacing the failure of the state as a regulatory body so as to cope with the transnational character of corporations and capital.

We are seeing a “fiscal crisis of the state” with “the socialization of the costs of social investment and social consumption capital increases over time and increasingly is needed for profitable accumulation by monopoly capital”[10], leading to the development of a hollow state with “the trappings of a modern nation-state…but it lacks any of the legitimacy, services and control of its historical counter-part”[11]. The processes of corruption which “have forever been companions of capitalism”[12] have reduced the state to a secondary, provisional position. Rather than regulating capital, it is propping up its instability and crisis tendencies and maintaining its longevity. Civil society and social movements are given the opportunity to provide this regulatory function, with the emergence of structures such as a Post-Westphalian politics and social regulation.

The second is the move toward replacing modern capitalism and its social relations with different conceptions of socio-economic organisation and relations that are borne out of capitalism’s failures. Streeck identifies five areas where capitalism is becoming unstable and crisis prone: “stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy”[13]. The 2008 crisis compounded this into a global reality, with global capitalism taking a massive blow, and the supposed recovery not generating necessary or tangible reforms, but instead maintaining similar issues such as financialisation and consumer spending-led growth.

Contained in this construction, we can see the seeds for the growth of new socio-economic conceptions. Castells’ analysis shows a new element to capitalism, that of networks, defined as “open structures, able to expand without limits, integrating new nodes as long as they are able to communicate within the network”[14]. The development of networks creates a new form of power, invested in the “switches connecting the networks”[15] with the switch controllers being power-holders, making power fluid. These capitalistic networks “are able to form and expand all over the main streets and back alleys of the global economy because of their reliance on the information power provided by the new technological paradigm”[16]. This means that, in Marxian terms, we see a transformation in the ownership of the means of production, with the controllers of capital simply owning the intellectual capital of their labourers. Their then becomes an ability for new networks to develop, with the true owners of intellectual capital (labour) removing capital from power. The fragility of modern capitalism, with its composition of failing state control and networks, can potentially allow for its capitulation by global social movements.

It goes back to the ideas of subjective and objective. They represent the two sides of capitalism, that of its control by networks of the capital classes, and that of its locational existence. The subjective creates identities and entrenches classes, as well as creating economic norms and supposed realities. The objective aims to ground this through the actual existence of hierarchical employment relations and the denigration of the democratic and social in favour of the economic and corporate. This is what global social movements want to resist. They see these characteristics as both global and local, set in time and space and yet an ever-present reality. The objective and subjective criteria are the focal points of resistance.

The anti-globalisation movement (AGM) works in the subjective, reimagining political and social structures that do not favour an elite of “globapolitans”[17]. Further, it is a reaction to the fluidity and globalised character of modern capitalism. As Dryzek notes “global civil society in its recent incarnations may really not be an outgrowth of state ordered civil society, but rather a response to globalization”[18]. Here global civil society consists of “social movements, the producers and consumers of old and new media…networks defined by common values or beliefs, and nongovernmental organizations”[19]. Thus we can characterise the AGM as a response to the challenges of globalisation and its failures, these being rising relative poverty and the capitulation of the state as a social organ. As Castells states “resistance confronts domination, empowerment reacts against powerlessness, and alternative projects challenge the logic embedded in the new global order”[20]. The AGM is aiming to construct an alternative paradigm, that of creating new economic identities. Some examples of this have included the creation of “free libraries, child care and health services, food, legal support, media, and art”[21]. We also see this with the creation of new moneys. These types of movements and institutions are created via networks that interact and produce new socio-economic foundations and are codified with different conceptions of society and economy.

Further, we see an exploitation of the failure of states to regulate, as with their failure to combat climate change. Instead civil society groups and consumer organisations have taken a leading role, pushing against large oil companies and corporate polluters. Instead of simply setting emissions targets, they are creating societal paradigms of how to live in a world with depleted resources and environmental degradation.

Further, we see particular locational targeting so as to allow for maximal effect in terms of societal change and the creation of new socio-economic structures. The AGM takes on a heterogeneous character, similar to the character of modern capitalism with its networks, flows and locational variability. Global social movements take on similar variabilities so as to create multiple sites of resistance. One of the major elements of this is the connection between the local and the global. Local resistance takes up an objective position of resisting existing realities of exploitation and injustice, while the global movement creates a subjective character which provides overarching identities and global connections toward a general conception of resistance to capitalism and the state. This can be seen in the variety of movements, networks and groups that make up the AGM, and the connections that exist between them. ” There are so many social movement organisations that are involved with and engage in the protests, and it is such a heterogeneous and diverse movement that it cannot be defined as a unified body”[22]. It is not simply one unified conception. Rather it is a battlefield of ideas that have varied times and spaces, much in the same way networks of capitalism do. This has been criticised however as too vague and unorganised.

Tormey has said that due to a rejection of the utopian imaginary, whether it be a unifying Marxist or anarchist vision, there lacks a general ideology that can create a view for meaningful change[23]. This criticism was made toward the World Social Forum, a major element in the general AGM. It has been considered “a contested space, rather than the simple ‘open space’”[24]. Thus the locational and varied characteristics of AGM groups (like the WSF) is seen as far too fragmented to take on the hegemonic position of modern neoliberal capitalism. Negri and Hardt have made similar remarks, noting that focusing only on the local gives power to the empire and takes it away from “the global multitude”[25]. These are important criticisms but they miss the point of these movements, as well as mistaking capitalism for a unitary system.

Douzinas has noted that resistance to capitalism by the AGM takes many forms. “The Arab spring had different aims from the Spanish indignados, the Greek aganaktismenoi and Occupy. However, the systemic pressures and the political reactions are similar. Biopolitical neo-liberalism and the post-Fordist economy of services treat people everywhere as desiring and consuming machines.”[26]. Further, capitalism’s exploitation takes place locally, having different characters for each scenario. The Occupy Movement focused on the financialisation of Western economies and their banking practices. The Arab Spring began with a young Tunisian man self-immolating due to the repressive economic regulations that forced him into poverty and maintained the capital, wealth and innovation in the hands of capitalist crony classes of Tunisia’s elite. The Greek protests began when massive cuts to public spending destroyed elements of Greek society. These are all a result of globalised neoliberal policies, yet they all had different effects and traits. Thus responses to them must take on the same features. That of heterogeneity and space. The structures which they challenge and the visions of a different society give them a broad, fluid connection of a larger social movement that is opposed to capitalism.

The Fairtrade movement is the second movement I want to look at. While generally considered part of the general AGM, I believe the Fairtrade movement has certain characteristics that distinguish it. For example, it takes an objective stance on the issue of resistance to capitalism. Instead of creating new institutions through sites of resistance, it instead co-opts elements of capitalism. It’s placed in more precedented structures that allow for wider acceptance, especially compared to the radical politics of the AGM and the WSF. Here the subjective of resistance doesn’t play as wide a role as the objective position of helping poor farmers access food markets in the West while maintaining a healthy income. Frickel et al give a good definition of this kind of social movement. They are “local and transnational social movement organizations work to change industry production standards and marketplace labeling”[27]. It is also noted that “in these movements, challengers often shift over time from being stridently oppositional to having partnership”[28].

Thus there becomes an issue of co-optation by the interests they are trying to influence. Issues of transformative politics spring up as well, particularly in relation to trade. Fairtrade risks the issue of becoming a bourgeois sideshow rather than a movement for change. The overall goal of Fairtrade is pretty sound. Addressing issues of rural poverty, consumer morality and producer sovereignty are important[29]. It can provide sidesteps that reduce the role of large retailers as well as providing new regulatory apparatuses that are ground up rather than top down and influenced by vested interests like government regulation. Co-optation of this type is important. It creates change from the inside out. Rather than constructing new environments, it takes over existing ones and reconstructs them in a more beneficial way.

However, while the principles are fine, the actually practice produces issues. Issues of representation come to the fore as certain producers are ignored in the governance and regulatory structures due to minimal influence, and there becomes more of a focus on certification and labeling than the creation of new production chains and trading relations[30]. As a result the Fairtrade movement falls into the same issues of traditional states, that of vested interests and general representation. Rather than Fairtrade linking with other movements in a diversity of resistance to modern economic relations, it appears to focus only on producing trade relations for impoverished producers in the same economies of scale that exist in capitalism. This isn’t transformational, and it can very easily lead to capitulation.

Capitalism as a system has very little to provide. Growth has slowed significantly and isn’t picking up. What little is left is based on financial trading and the production of household debt. Post-industrial societies are full of basic service jobs, and are reliant on subsidised economies of scale so as to maintain cheap manufacturing outlets in the developing world. Public services are cut to the bone to satisfy central bank creditors, IMF regulations and capital markets. These are presented by capitalism’s ideologues as subjective norms and objective realities. Unchanging and rigid. However this is not the case. Rather the socio-economic structures of today are contested terrain. Not between public and private. But between global social movements and the interests of capital. Global social movements are creating sites of resistance where they can change socio-economic relations and create counter-economic institutions to supersede the current ones. They are doing this through the same praxis of globalisation. ““Neoliberal globalization” is not a static or homogenous phenomenon”[31] and neither are global social movements. Instead they are heterogeneous. They take on different times and locations, maintaining the praxis of objective and subjective, and building a “globalisation from below”[32]. They are exploiting the nodes and networks of modern capitalism, and through it creating the seeds of capitalism’s death.


 Bennett, E.A. (2013). Global Social Movements in Global Governance. Globalizations. 9 (6), 799-813.

Carson, K. (2010). The Homebrew Industrial Revolution. United States: BookSurge.

Castells, M. (2010). The Power of Identity. 2nd ed. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing.

Castells, M. (2010). The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing.

Douzinas, C. (2013). Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dryzek, J. (2012). Global Civil Society: The Progress of Post-Westphalian Politics. Annual Review of Political Science. 15, 101-119.

Foucault, M. (1990). The History of Sexuality 1: An Introduction . 3rd ed. New York: Vintage/Random House.

Frickel et al. (2011). Science and neoliberal globalization: a political sociological approach. Theory & Society. 40, 505-532.

Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2000). Empire. United States of America: Harvard University Press.

Ibrahim, Y. (2009). Understanding the Alternative Globalisation Movement. Sociology Compass. 3 (3), 394-416.

Morse, C., 2003. Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement. New Formulation, [Online]. 2 (1), 0. Available at: [Accessed 09 December 2015].

Olesen, T. (2005). The Uses and Misuses of Globalization in the Study of Social Movements. Social Movement Studies. 4 (1), 49-63.

Sitrin, M. & Azzellini, D. (2014). They Can’t Represent Us!. London: Verso.

Streeck, W. (2014). How Will Capitalism End?. Available: Last accessed 11th Dec 2015.

Touraine, A. (2002). The Importance of Social Movements. Social Movement Studies. 1 (1), 89-95.

[1] Touraine, A. 2002, 92

[2] Morse, C. 2001

[3] Morse, C. 2001

[4] Olesen, T. 2005, 49

[5] Streeck, W. 2014

[6] Streeck, W. 2014

[7] Foucault, M. 1990, 95-96

[8] Streeck, W. 2014

[9] Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa

[10] Carson, K. 2010, 105

[11] Carson, K. 2010, 106

[12] Streeck, W. 2014

[13] Streeck, W. 2014

[14] Castells, M. 2010, 501

[15] Castells, M. 2010, 502

[16] Castells, M. 2010, 180

[17] Castells, M. 2010, 72

[18] Dryzek, J. 2012, 103

[19] Dryzek, J. 2012, 103

[20] Castells, M. 2010, 72

[21] Sitrin, M. & Azzellini, D. 2014

[22] Ibrahim, Y. 2009, 397

[23] Ibrahim, Y. 2009, 411

[24] Ibrahim, Y. 2009, 411

[25] Hardt, M. & Negri, A. 2001, 62

[26] Douzinas, C. 2013, 9

[27] Frickel et al. 2011, 522

[28] Frickel et al. 2011, 522

[29] Bennett, E.A. 2013, 806

[30] Bennett, E.A. 2013, 808

[31] Frickel et al. 2011, 507

[32] Ibrahim, Y. 2009, 396

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