Ida Susser: Re-envisioning social movements in the Global City

This paper is an effort to understand social movements in the United States with respect to regimes of accumulation (following somewhat in the footsteps of social theorists such as Gavin Smith (2011) and Jane Collins (2012). Here, I review recent approaches to theorizing social movements of the neoliberal era and then attempt to understand the emergence of various movements over time in New York City. As Don Kalb (2014: 174) has called for, this is part of an ongoing project “to rediscover … the interconnected populist histories, contestations and emergent ‘class compasses’” generated in the urban capitalist context.

I would argue that following E.P. Thompson (1963), we can understand the new class formations or fault lines of society through the emerging social movements of the era. Thus, the World Social Forum revealed a growing understanding of common global assaults through neoliberalism and the less-than-obvious connections between the privatization of water and the price of pharmaceuticals. Occupy Wall Street told us something about a growing conception of the middle and working class finding themselves in the same structural position. Clearly there were important struggles over the representation of the poorest Americans—native Americans, homeless people, and racialized minorities—as well as the voices of women, but these struggles for representation do not negate the power of the general message.

This argument relies on a view of the working class, defined broadly by its lack of the ownership of production, becoming aware of common interests in opposition to the assault of concerted corporate interests. However, in line with a postwar hegemonic project in the United States, since the 1950s, many working people have come to see themselves as middle class and, in fact, denied common interests with what we might call the precariat, often defined by race (Kalb 2014). As in the discussion of Occupy above, here, I use the term middle class as both an emic and a sociological category and then consider the ways in which such groups, increasingly in debt and with static or declining incomes, have recently begun to see themselves in more inclusive terms as the “99 percent.”

Overall, I would submit that we learn about class formation and the possibilities of transformation from the emergence of contingent movements and that we need to theorize social movements from the grassroots (although this is a rather vague term—from the bottom up as we used to say). Kasmir and Carbonella (2008) also take a Thompsonian perspective—analyzing movements from the grassroots in the effort to develop an understanding of the politics of resistance to accumulation by dispossession. Although we can recognize shifts in regimes of accumulation, the historical importance of the particular movements that seem inevitably to spring up in resistance to new modes of exploitation are not always readily understood when they first emerge, but frequently come to signal new class formations as they crystallize and evolve over time.

Although theorists of social movements have long looked past the shop floor (Harvey 1976; Kalb 2014; Lem 2014; Susser 2012) the ways in which the social reproduction of the neighborhood, the urban street and labor movements interact under particular regimes becomes ever more significant as we enter the neoliberal regime with the dispersed workforce facilitated by informational technology, in all spaces from taxi driving to home rentals (such as Airbnb). With no benefits and ever fewer factories and business done from home by computer or smartphone, social media becomes more crucial for social movements as the shop floor and even shops disappear. However, social media does not negate the need or expression of the urban street or social movements in public space, and it is the relationship between these forms of social protest that we need to theorize.

In a theoretical discussion of social movements, Gavin Smith (2011) notes that, since the 1980s, crises of accumulation have precipitated shifts in ruling class policies that have led to the dismantling of government services and the narrow targeting of assistance, which he terms “selective hegemony.” He uses the term “selective hegemony” to specify that neoliberalism involves exclusions that foster narrow identity politics rather than universal policies. One of Smith’s important contributions to ongoing discussions of the current neoliberal era is his exploration of different hegemonic processes associated with recent political economic transformations.

This schematic outline moves us major steps toward understanding the formation of distinctive groups under neoliberal global policies. However, class, as a conflicting or counter-hegemonic force, is not a central theme of Smith’s argument. Since the analysis starts from an effort to restate arguments of governmentality, with the ever-present aim of linking a Foucauldian analysis with a Marxist framework, such a top-down analysis of hegemony does not explain how the emergence of social movements may break through and redefine the class boundaries of previous regimes of accumulation.

To take a completely different approach to social movements, I refer back to Castells’s (1983) The City and the Grassroots. Like Christopher Hill (1972), Eric Hobsbawm (1955), Herbert Gutman (1976), and other social historians, Castells sought to understand culturally available paths and ideals that opened the possibilities for democracy, whether or not the visionaries succeeded at any particular historical moment—and this is an essential aspect in the understanding of social movements. Political mobilization or the act of collective resistance in itself generates and legitimizes alternative visions—such as the ideas of the urban commons so widespread today—thus even as they fail, movements of land invasion, emerging from historically and spatially rooted social process, lead people to publicly question the priority of private property under capitalism. As I have argued elsewhere (2006), alternative visions and their practical reality expressed in settlements for the poor are themselves significant in the generation of future possibilities. This perspective is crucial in recognizing the impact of mobilizations such as Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and its effect on U.S. politics.

Recent work by the Human Economy school (Keith Hart, John Sharpe, and others, in South Africa, Pretoria) has begun to take this approach seriously in the postrecession era and shows the ways in which communal efforts in Greece (Rakopoulos 2013) and elsewhere may be creating practices that hold the possibility to shift the dominant discourse and contribute to imagining alternatives. Such an approach also recalls the arguments of Gibson-Graham (2006), who, coming from a feminist perspective, tried to decenter industrial work and analyze informal work, households, and varying patterns of redistribution as important spaces where people may work cooperatively and through such practice generate transformative visions of society.

Clearly global movements today manifest themselves across class lines. As many have suggested, they are better described in terms of a theory of the commons (Harvey 2012; Nonini 2007; Susser and Tonnelat 2013). The idea of the commons connects with calls for human rights and environmental justice—shared rights to health, land, air, and water rather than to a narrow interpretation of working class politics. Don Nonini (2007) has argued that the battle over the commons responds to the capitalist degradation of the environment combined with the crisis of accumulation (2007). Such powerful and multiple emerging movements are also responding to the newly emerging forms of stratification in the global economy manifested or precipitated by the increasing privatization and reductions in the public weal. People are recognizing and struggling against a continuing process or capital accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2003; Kasmir and Carbonella 2008), but since this dispossession is affecting a much broader group of people than industrial workers, or, in fact, the Fordist definition of the working class, the emerging movements involve a much broader swath of the population.

Building on the anthropological tradition of Marxist/feminist theorists, whose influence in theorizing social reproduction Winnie Lem (2014) reminded us in a recent blog, Jane Collins (2012) expands our ideas of labor, unemployment, and social reproduction as she argues that in the context of the growing inequality and privatization of neoliberal regimes of accumulation, powerful movements have emerged among service providers and the families they serve, many of whom might think of themselves as middle class. This argument was first developed by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (1971) in their 1970s analysis of the Welfare Rights Movement. However, at that time, the divisions of race and income between the two groups, the contrasting opportunities available to the service workers and the context of this struggle in a moment when industrial labor was still relatively well off and well established, prevented a wider social movement and the expression of joint class interests coming to the fore. However, once the civil rights and feminist movements had won the affirmative action legislation, and after the 1975 fiscal crisis and the departure of manufacturing from much of the northeastern United States, such cooperation between government service providers and those they served became evident and powerful, if in scattered situations.

The next part of this discussion explores the social movements in New York City from the theoretical perspectives outlined above. Although the basic outlines of the shifts from a manufacturing to a service economy are well described in the literature, this is a preliminary attempt to sort out the combination of neighborhood movements, movements around service access, and labor movements under these changing regimes. In a longer article, it would be necessary to explore the particulars of the New York economy, the small manufacturing and preponderance of immigration that characterized the city as opposed to the major industrial labor typified in a “Fordist” economy (Freeman 2000). The effort here is to compare the dominant social movements of the 1960s with those of the later era, the transition to neoliberalism of the 1970s and 1980s, and then the social movements during the massive gentrification, displacements, and defaults of the 2000s. Clearly, this is a rough sketch that needs to be filled in, reworked, and inevitably rethought in a later effort, but the hope is that it will provide some basis to theorize social movements.

In New York City, under as G. Smith (2011) would suggest the expansive hegemony of the welfare state, we can trace effective and powerful labor movements from the 1950s to ’70s (Freeman 2000). Through the 1960s, one of the main battles of the civil rights movement was not only against racial segregation of neighborhoods but for entry into these well-unionized jobs. Feminists also fought, through unions and elsewhere, for equal pay, day care to allow women to work, and entrance into male-defined fields. Freeman notes that after 1965, the labor unions, men in construction, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the many small factories such as those concentrated in Red Hook and Greenpoint-Williamsburg, Brooklyn, declined in power. By the 1970s the jobs in the well-organized garment manufacturing, predominantly women workers, had also shifted to the Pacific Rim and elsewhere, and the Garment Workers Union was under assault.

As noted above, Piven and Cloward (1971) documented the Welfare Rights Movement in the late 1960s and the cooperation of poor black women arriving in New York City after the automation of the cotton picking in the rural South, with the women social service workers who were employed as the gatekeepers of payments from what was then Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). These groups together managed to redefine subsidies for poor families as a right and remove barriers such as home inspections and the specification of funds for particular purchases of clothes and furniture from the requirements. This transformation of welfare subsidies from a contingent charity to a right was greatly resented by conservative government officials (such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who were central in the Republican Party at that time) and led to Frances Piven being vilified and remembered by such Republicans for forty years. However, by the late 1990s, the neoliberal and conservative agenda had destroyed the program and replaced it with time-limited subsidies tied to work requirements.

Another significant social movement in NYC in the 1960s was in opposition to the racialized control of public space and police violence. Although the incarceration rate was not nearly as high as it became later, by the mid-1960s, the excessive use of force was already an issue, and there was a strong movement to create a civilian review board for the police department.

The anti-imperialist student movement was one of the major forces of the 1960s and certainly shaped the thinking of scholars of the era. In this context of social movements with respect to New York City, it had two main thrusts. First was the collaboration of students with the civil rights movement (as in the opposition to Columbia University’s expansion into Morningside Park and the takeover of public space accessible to Harlem residents) and second, perhaps, in the first “postindustrial” effort to redefine the uses of the new technology only just coming into view such as to allow a different future for all. We can include the hippie movement, the squatters, the first community garden occupations, the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers (founded by Marcuse’s two stepsons), and many other groups, whose positions were perhaps best expressed in Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1966), a call for an alternative vision of work and leisure. And, of course, the historic takeover of the urban street—which led to the theorization of Henri Lefebvre (2003) and the many who followed.

As the Brooklyn Navy Yard closed, construction slowed for a time, and small manufacturing departed from the city, industrial labor unions lost influence, while a new group of powerful unions emerged in New York City among hospital workers and service workers, including many minorities and women, teachers and even university faculty and staff. The police and firefighters’ unions strengthened, now subject to affirmative action laws, although these were resisted for many years. This was also a time of continuing expansion, with the unifying of the borough colleges and the creation of the City University of New York, the construction of affordable housing for the poor and the middle class, and the building of major cultural centers such as the Lincoln Center Opera House.

The 1975 Fiscal Crisis in New York City was the watershed moment in the transition from Fordism to flexible accumulation. It precipitated an abrupt abandonment of major social service projects which involved the closing of well-baby clinics, local hospitals and TB treatment centers, and public libraries, the firing of the new university faculty and the reduction or neglect of sanitation services, education, fire protection, and many other kinds of city responsibilities, such as sealing up burned out buildings. The newly entrenched service unions lent their pension funds to back up the city during the fiscal crisis, but many of their workers were still laid off in the following austerity.

During this period, working-class neighborhood movements responded with rent strikes and sweat equity in the effort to preserve affordable housing. In several boroughs, residents took over firehouses in the effort to preserve fire protection and worked with both the fire union and the police to preserve their jobs and services (Susser 2012). These events can be seen as early examples of the massive collaborations that occurred in Wisconsin thirty years later. However, we do not yet see movements in which the middle class was closely aligned with working class interests.

In 1988, after thirteen years of neoliberalism, homeless people, anarchists, and artists occupied Tomkins Square Park in an iconic event of resistance to escalating displacement through gentrification (Marcus 2005; Smith 1996). This cooperation between working class youth, homeless people, politically informed anarchists, and artists displaced from the Lower East Side was a harbinger of the kind of movements of the urban street which were to become prevalent in the next decades.

By 1998, antiglobal activists were organizing around the United States, but the first major demonstration in NYC was planned for September 2001, when the World Trade Organization (WTO) was to meet in NYC. These protests were dramatically undermined by the shocking events of 9/11and the re-organization of global perspectives that followed. Under the harsh police fortifications implemented by then­–Mayor Giuliani, exacerbated by the horror and fear following the assault on the World Trade Center, comparatively few protestors turned up and the critique of the WTO was temporarily muted.

In the 2000s, under the Bloomberg mayoral administration, a business/government plan to rezone the city resulted in the massive displacement of artists and professionals combined with the continuing harassment and displacement of working-class people. Both groups joined together in all boroughs to save affordable housing, public education, and other services. The Great Recession of 2008 led to some slowing down in the displacement through gentrification but increased displacement through debt and house foreclosures (Susser 2012). In the spring of 2011, major demonstrations took place in Wisconsin. That September, Occupy Wall Street protesters took over Zucotti Park just a block from the center of capital on Wall Street. They famously occupied that space for several months, unrelentingly through cold and wet. Led by 20-somethings as well as long-term anarchists and other activists, this occupation of public space reflected the total displacement of youth beyond neighborhood and forefronted the new economy of financialization and predatory debt (Williams 2004), particularly student debt. Implementing a variety of tactics honed over twenty years of antiglobal organizing, Occupy Wall Street served as a rallying ground for thousands of people, alternative communal lifestyles, well-organized medical and food distribution, tents and blankets for the cold wet weather, a library of shared books, reconfigured forms of communication and sign language, a multimedia headquarters equipped with high-tech computers plugged in globally in the open air, and a long series of world-famous speakers combined with local NYC activists. This was followed by youth occupations across the nation and far beyond national boundaries. I would argue that, although fleeting, these demonstrations, which included both the communal aspects stressed by Gibson-Graham (2006) and the occupation of public space and the urban street highlighted by Castells (1983), Lefebvre (2003), and others, reconfigured the vision of New York City and the United States and led not only to the changes in NYC politics and a concerted rethinking of the Bloomberg era but also provided the support for President Barack Obama to mention issues of poverty in his re-election campaign. However, the gentrification processes recovered by 2013, as house prices and rentals soared and the displacement and harassment of tenants was exacerbated.

By the elections of 2013 in NYC, I would argue partly as a consequence of Occupy Wall Street and the ensuing organizing, we see the emergence of a different class consciousness over time. The outlier, Bill De Blasio was elected mayor on the basis of, once again, a campaign against police harassment, this time the racial targeting implied in the “stop and frisk” program. His campaign slogan was a recognition of “the 99 percent” intervention of Occupy Wall Street: “A Tale of Two Cities” and his campaign promises involved a priority for affordable housing as well as universal kindergarten. In other words, middle- and working-class New Yorkers were voting for a candidate who directly confronted the unprecedented inequality in the city, the ongoing racial targeting and repression by the police, and the shortage of housing for middle-class and working-class people. This election represented an alternate vision of the city and set priorities for a new coalition of residents who in fact, understood themselves as “the 99 percent,” perhaps a new class formation in this increasingly unequal world.

This moment may be as fleeting as Occupy; however, it is still indicative of a new recognition of growing inequality, reflected in the immense public acclaim at the publication of Thomas Piketty’s (2014) volume on the accumulating wealth of the 0.1 percent. E.P. Thompson (1963) takes the appearance of “working class” in the working man’s newspapers of 1813 as indicative of the emergence of a class for itself. Perhaps the slogan, “the 99 percent,” can be seen in the same light. If the tendency toward such a broad coalition of interests among the displaced middle and working classes is recognized, perhaps it will become the baseline upon which to advocate for progressive policies under neoliberalism.


Ida Susser is professor of anthropology at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center and has conducted ethnographic research in the United States, Southern Africa and Puerto Rico, with respect to urban social movements and the urban commons,  gender, the global AIDS epidemic, and environmental movements.




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Cite as: Susser, Ida. 2014. “Re-envisioning social movements in the Global City,” FocaalBlog, 12 November,