March 7, 2012, by Adrian Mateo

Global restructuring and the unevenness of resistance

On 27 January 2012, the workshop Globalisations: The Return of History or the End of the Future? was held at the University of Nottingham, UK. This event included scholars from across all three of the University’s campuses in the UK, Ningbo China and Malaysia as well as the participation of international figures such as Professor Gerardo Otero (Simon Fraser University), visiting as a Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS) Highfield Fellow. The main theme of discussion resulting from the various papers revolved around different forms of resistance within the overall unevenness of the global political economy.

Leonie Ansems de Vries opened the first panel by assessing the complexities of global development and forms of governance/resistance shaping the terrain of development and security. Drawing on Michel Foucault, she argued that resistance is always-already part of the strategic complex of global governance. However, a question remains as to the extent to which forms of resistance may actually challenge complexes of political order and security or remain rooted in new modes of liberal governance.

Bin Wu’s focus on labour rights in China identified three different strategies of empowerment waged by Chinese migrant workers through: (1) the defence of rights by establishing a workers’ hotline; (2) the establishment of workers’ committees; and (3) through the setting of clear workers’ goals. If successful, these strategies would clearly improve working conditions in China and, as a result, everyday lives. The fundamental causes of super-exploitation, the way production is organised around wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production in capitalism, however, is not challenged by such action. One of the characteristics of the ‘new Chinese worker’ is that over 45% of labour migrants from the countryside do not return to the city. This process of proletarianisation is central to the continuation of surplus value extraction and, one can surmise, that the above strategies of empowerment are equally pivotal in mollifying increasing unrest amongst migrant workers. Simon McGrath highlighted the positive role of workers’ skills development as a way forward in South Africa. Adopted from the UK and Australia during the 1990s, these human resource development issues have facilitated an upward movement of black people into constituting a new middle class in South Africa. At the same time, development has proceeded to be highly uneven in South Africa, with education and training failing to overcome the problem of mass poverty. Such policies of skills development have, again, not been a force of transformation.

Elsewhere in the global political economy, David Kiwuwa regarded the push for democratisation as a positive process in that it may encourage further Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and thus processes of development in sub-Saharan African countries. With a focus on Rwanda, he also made it clear that there is no straightforward, direct relationship between democratisation and FDI levels. Equally, when discussing the role of human rights, Nick Stevenson argued that a human rights approach is often too quickly dismissed when thinking about the forms and politics of resistance. The very fact that human rights have maintained widespread popular currency amongst students indicates the potential for emancipatory discourses to be built around them. Ultimately, though, they need to be linked to demands for a creative life, in terms of social, educative and economic rights, which can also be facilitated by access to knowledge though the internet. Tessa Houghton therefore highlighted the role of the internet, which potentially can facilitate resistance to neoliberal policies and wider authoritarianism if one considers the politics of ‘Hacktavism’ or the ‘Twitter Revolution’.

Sara Motta and Andy Robinson, in turn, emphasised the importance of autonomous movements of resistance conducted by people on the margins of society in the Global South. Here, the everyday is regarded as a key site of power and resistance. As Srila Roy, however, made clear in her contribution the empirical picture of such resistance groups can be rather messy, at least if one analyses feminist groups in India. While some have become legitimisers of the neoliberal order, transformed into NGOs with a focus on service provision and supporters of processes of individualisation, other groups show more continuity with the paths of resistance of the past. Moreover, as Gerardo Otero made clear in his probing questions the relationship between autonomous groups of resistance and the overall conditioning situation of uneven development through engagement with the state needs to be made clearer. In other words, a clearer analysis and understanding of the structuring conditions of resistance is required. On this issue, Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton emphasised the overall conditions of uneven and combined development and how this in the vast majority of cases ‘locks in’ certain patterns of neoliberalisation in peripheral countries. The current expanded ‘free trade’ agenda, including now also trade in services, intellectual property rights and investment, is likely to intensify this tendency even further and deepen processes of uneven and combined development as well as unequal exchange. The latter refers to the transfer of surplus value and the extension of the capitalist market along with conditions of exploitation throughout the global political economy. Read the paper presented at the workshop by Andreas and Adam – Uneven and combined development and unequal exchange: the second wind of neoliberal ‘free trade’?

In short, what is required is a conceptualisation of the complex interplay between resistances to capitalism and the conditioning situation of uneven development in the global political economy. This may generate an understanding of new rounds of resistance (and, indeed, conditions of global uprising) that are accompanying new rounds of capitalist accumulation in the twenty-first century.

Andreas Bieler (Professor of Professor of Political Economy – School of Politics and International Relations) and Adam Morton (Associate Professor of Political Economy – School of Politics and International Relations)


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