Autonomy versus Conformism, Co-optation, De-politicization? Social Movements and Institutions in the Neoliberal Era

Institutions
 
International Relations
 
Social Movements
 
NGOs
 
Political Activism
 
Protests
 
Presenter
Tiina Seppälä
University of Lapland
Authors
Tiina Seppälä
University of Lapland

Abstract
The idea of autonomous resistance, which emphasizes the importance of autonomy from state-led and international institutions and the need to build non-hierarchical, local forms of organization, decision-making and political participation, has become ever more popular among social movements in the neoliberal era. As a phenomenon, this is connected to growing scepticism towards mainstream politics controlled by political and economic elites, as well as social movements experiencing increasingly aggressive mechanisms of state control, surveillance and violence. Besides state-led institutions, many movements are critical of international institutions and NGOs as they are considered “safety guards” of the neoliberal system and state power. Although a burgeoning number of movements refuse to collaborate with institutional/ized actors, some movements continue to interact and co-operate with them. Even within these movements there are often mixed views concerning the two domains of politics, the autonomous domain and the state-led domain. In theoretical debate, these developments have been interpreted and conceptualized from various perspectives. While some argue that it impossible for movements to have any autonomy, others maintain that the distinction between the two domains of politics should not be overly polarized as movements can utilize multiple strategies simultaneously; whilst some claim that movements that collaborate with institutional actors are not “properly” political or radical, and consider them rather conformist, co-opted, de-politicized. In the paper, I critically analyse these theoretical discourses, building empirically on my ethnographic research on social movements in Nepal, India and Bangladesh, where I have engaged with anti-eviction, slum and women’s rights movements (2011–2015).
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